For the Love of Elephants: Furman University Alum Educates Public About Plight of Pachyderms

By Tina Underwood

Joy Owens says her career at The Elephant Sanctuary came about through a combination of serendipity and luck. A 2014 sustainability science graduate of Sullivan Foundation partner school Furman University, Owens also credits her three internships for shaping her future in informal education, the role she holds as education manager at the sanctuary, located in the unlikely and humble town of Hohenwald, Tenn., population 3,687 (not including the 11 Asian and African elephants who live in the sprawling sanctuary).

“I was job searching on the internet one day, and when I saw the job listing for an education manager at an elephant sanctuary, I was like, ‘Is this real? Am I being pranked right now?’” Owens recalled.

Related: Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recipient Neely Griggs keeps puppy tails wagging for pet rescue organization

Joy Owens

After confirming the sanctuary was a legitimate, licensed organization, Owens applied for the post. “Luckily, I got the job,” says Owens, now marking four years at the sanctuary, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020.

The 2,700-acre sanctuary offers a second lease on life to elephants who have spent years in captivity in zoos, the entertainment industry or in traveling circuses.

Specifically, it provides captive elephants with individualized care, the companionship of a herd and the opportunity to live out their lives in a safe haven dedicated to their wellbeing, according to the sanctuary’s website.

It’s the second part of the sanctuary’s mission—to raise public awareness of the complex needs of elephants in captivity and the crisis facing elephants in the wild—where Owens comes in.

As part of a “small but mighty team” of three in education and outreach, Owens develops curriculum and implements and analyzes programming to ensure the sanctuary’s educational objectives are being met.

A true sanctuary, the facility is not open to the public. But through distance learning, strategically placed EleCams and The Elephant Discovery Center in downtown Hohenwald, the public has access to a trove of information about Earth’s largest land dwellers—a trove Owens is happy to dispense.

Owens’ calling in informal education in the nonprofit space first became clear while she served a post-graduation internship at the Carl Sandberg Home in Flatrock, N.C., near her hometown of Mills River.

“They (informal education settings) really allow me to connect with audiences and talk about topics I’m passionate about, whether that’s the environment, food, sustainable agriculture or animals and conservation,” said Owens, who also helped manage the Furman Farm and served a research internship through Furman’s Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities, where she studied community gardens.

Related: University of Virginia employee runs Feel Better Farm for rescue animals in Charlottesville area

As an educator, Owens does not interact with the elephants. That’s the role of 18 full-time caregivers at the sanctuary, who have built individual relationships with the pachyderms over the course of years.

“My job is to talk to people, get them excited about our mission, our work, and excited about conserving elephants,” Owens said. “We Skype, Zoom and Google Meet with people all over the world.” Last year, the team spoke to more than 15,000 people across 20 countries and 44 states.

this photo shows an elephant in a field of wild flowers at the Elephant Sanctuary located in Hohenwald, Tennessee

Flora enjoys a lumbering stroll in a field of flowers at The Elephant Sanctuary.

As veteran online educators, Owens and staff didn’t need to scramble to get up to speed when COVID-19 hit. “We’ve been doing distance learning for eight years, long before the pandemic necessitated it,” said Owens, whose diverse clientele spans a range of ages and geography. “My day could start with kindergartners in Massachusetts and end with fifth-graders in Greece,” she said.

But, with the onset of COVID-19, the types of clients have changed to include corporate offices, such as Google, and other adult groups like Rotary Club and women’s clubs that are now meeting online versus in person.

No matter the audience, Owens wants to drive one message home.

“I want people to know that elephants are extremely complex animals—very intelligent and very emotionally intelligent with complex needs,” she said. “I really like to point that out because elephants are still kept in captivity and used in entertainment.”

Related: Mississippi “hotel for dogs” lets guests foster or adopt stray pups

It’s true. Some are isolated in makeshift roadside zoos, and some travel in smaller circus operations, as there are no federal laws regulating the use of elephants in performance, Owens said.

A few states and cities have passed restrictions.

“I always challenge people to critically think, ‘Is that the best life for elephants?’ I think if people knew just how intelligent these animals are, how deeply bonded they can be with their herd and how vast their health needs are, they would be a lot more hesitant to engage with elephants in captivity the way we currently do,” said Owens.

this photo shows an educational session at the Elephant Sanctuary

Joy Owens leads an educational session at the Elephant Discovery Center in downtown Hohenwald, Tennessee.

Under fire from animal rights groups and local governments, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus discontinued the use of elephants in 2016. But there remain elephants who aren’t getting the care they need.

For Owens, it’s the younger audiences who really inspire her as she works to educate the public.

“The most satisfying part of my job, especially in the past year, is seeing the excitement in kids to talk about elephants,” she said. “Some of the kids were going to school online, full-time, spending hours per day on Zoom or Google Meet. That can get exhausting and mundane. But, whenever we would join a call, these kids would be amped—so pumped to talk to us about elephants.”

Being pelted with dozens of questions by school-age kids is a job hazard Owens gladly accepts. “Getting to have those interactions and just getting to be the person that excites them in their day or maybe adds some fun to their day is really rewarding,” she said.

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Furman University website. All photos are courtesy of The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald Tennessee. Visit to learn more.

UVA Employee Runs Feel Better Farm for Rescue Animals in Charlottesville Area

Sarah Osborn Barwick got the call from the Greene County Sheriff’s Office before Thanksgiving. More than 100 animals were languishing, some near death, in a dismally unkempt property littered with debris, and with little to no food or fresh water.

Working on a tip from the community, deputies were planning to raid the property and seize as many animals as they could. They called in four local animal rescue organizations to help with the operation.

Related: Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award recipient Neely Griggs keeps puppy tails wagging for pet rescue organization

Barwick, an Australian native and computer software expert at the University of Virginia, a Sullivan Foundation partner school, runs Feel Better Farm Equine and Farm Animal Rescue with her husband, Jason. Their outfit ended up taking in the bulk of the 131 animals rescued, including two pigs, a goat, some sheep and several different types of birds.

In this picture Sarah Barwick visits with a rescue horse named Mia at Feel Good Farm

Sarah Barwick visits with a rescue horse named Mia at Feel Better Farm. (Photo by Dan Addison, UVA)

She and representatives from the other rescue outfits gathered with authorities at a meeting site near the property in Dyke at 10 a.m. on a mild November day. The warrant “was to seize a largely unknown number of animals because, in a seizure case, it’s always unknown,” she said. “You never really know what you’re getting until you get there.

“We went in and we seized what eventually ended up being 131 animals, who were living in just absolutely horrible conditions.”

Related: Hotel for dogs lets guests foster or adopt stray pups

It took the team about six hours to identify, tag and load all the animals for transport. Some of the sheep had to be carried to waiting trailers because they were too weak to walk, and one of the two pigs was badly injured and not expected to survive the night. Barwick rescued 114 animals, and her farm had already been prepped to feed and shelter them as soon as they arrived home on that Nov. 6 evening.

Barwick and her husband founded Feel Better Farm Equine and Farm Animal Rescue in 2018. A self-proclaimed “horse girl,” Barwick said she’d always wanted to form an animal rescue. Learning about horse slaughtering in 2016 was the push she needed. She rescued her first horse from slaughter that year and never looked back.

Feel Better Farm is located on 20 acres of mostly pasture in Esmont. It has five stall barns, two additional outbuildings and a 600-square-foot chicken coop.

In this photo Sarah Berwick is shown visiting a pony in the stables at Feel Good Farm

Sarah Barwick visits with Tony, a 30-year-old Hackney pony, at Feel Better Farm. (Photo by Dan Addison, UVA)

Barwick’s husband had been the lead server at Charlottesville’s Downtown Grille but became unemployed when the restaurant closed permanently in April because of the coronavirus pandemic. He is now the farm manager. “He takes care of everybody. And I get to come in and play on the weekend after work,” Barwick said.

The goal with most of the animals on her farm, including horses, ducks and peacocks, is to eventually place them in qualified adoptive homes, where the animals will be treated as family pets. “Anyone who does not find a home stays with us,” Barwick said.

Feel Better Farm runs entirely on donations, from veterinary care to food and hay. Anyone interested in donating food can purchase it through Charlottesville’s Southern States Cooperative. You can also make a PayPal donation to Feel Better Farms here.

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of Virginia website.

Sullivan Award Winner Keeps Puppy Tails Wagging for Pet Rescue Organization

Mississippi has too many stray dogs. Pet lovers in northern states are eager to adopt, but there aren’t enough dogs there to meet the demand. That’s where Neely Griggs comes in.

Griggs, a public policy major and 2020 recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at the University of Mississippi, has made it her mission to fill the gap, rescuing local strays and transporting them to loving homes up north—that is, when she’s not reaching out to help her fellow humans in need.

Related: Learn more about the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award here.

As the Transport and Intake Coordinator for Mississippi Mutts in Oxford, Griggs keeps doggie tails wagging happily as they ship off to meet their new families. She coordinates the transfer of animals to partner organizations, such as Wright-Way Rescue in Chicago, that place the pups in forever homes.

“Growing up in rural Mississippi, my family had a lot of pets, so I grew up with a love for animals,” Griggs said. “I was definitely the child who wanted to rescue every animal I found.”

Mississippi’s stray dog problem is well-documented. Some have been abandoned by their owners, while others simply wandered off from home and never found their way back. Thousands of dogs are raised in the notorious “puppy mills”—breeding operations in which allegedly “purebred” animals often endure cruel treatment and unsanitary living conditions—that dot the state.

Related: Hotel for dogs in Biloxi, Mississippi lets guests foster or adopt stray pups

this photo shows Neely Griggs with a rescued dog getting ready for transport up north

Growing up in Mississippi, Griggs was “definitely the child who wanted to rescue every animal I found.”

Many of the dogs haven’t been spayed or neutered, which makes them likely to bring even more homeless pups into the world.

“Pet ownership is very common in Mississippi,” Griggs said. “However, people often don’t realize the responsibility of owning a pet, such as the financial burden and time commitment. This has led to an overabundance of unwanted animals in our state.”

And even when they’re rescued from a hard life in the streets or the puppy mills, too many of man’s best friends still end up dead. Although some shelters have a no-kill policy, most can’t afford to care for the dogs over the long term and eventually have to euthanize them.

“Stray dogs can cause problems even in rural communities, and in many towns, shelters are not equipped to handle the number of stray animals,” Griggs explained. “This leads to the killing of many unwanted animals and the use of extremely limited shelter resources. That’s why it’s necessary to transport animals out of the state. Specifically, shelters in cities like Chicago often have prospective pet owners on waitlists to adopt. They are just waiting for one to become available.”

this photo shows Neely Griggs with a Mississippi Mutts group getting ready to transport dogs to Chicago to get adopted.

Mississippi Mutts’ mission to transport shelter dogs up north fulfills a demand for pets in other parts of the U.S. while helping Mississippi shelters conserve their resources.

“Transporting animals elsewhere is beneficial for the home state because there are less stray animals and more resources for shelters, but the animals transported elsewhere find healthy and happy outcomes,” Griggs added. “Most importantly, they can live long lives and bring joy to a family.”

When Griggs isn’t saving our four-legged pals, she’s working hard for underserved populations in the Oxford area. She spent the past summer interning for the Rust College Community Development Corporation in nearby Holly Springs, Miss. The organization helps people facing issues such as housing instability and food insecurity while supporting local businesses and securing funding for community development projects.

Griggs said she was introduced to the Rust College CDC through her role as an intern with the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement. “My main roles included assisting with the grant application process, directly volunteering with the Holly Springs school district’s food distribution program and creating marketing materials for the Holly Springs High School Career and Technical Center. I also helped create a grant application guide for the Rust College CDC, specifically drafting a grant-application decision matrix and timeline for future interns and employees to use in the grant application process.”

“Although I had a theoretical understanding of capacity building through my studies, my summer experience allowed me to gain a functional knowledge of the practice,” she said. “I’m so grateful that I was able to learn more about how capacity building looks in an organization and also assist in activities that would help create lasting value in Holly Springs.”

Related: This 12-year-old social entrepreneur makes bowties to help shelter animals get adopted

Additionally, Griggs has served an internship with the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) office in Oxford, helping people in need apply for public assistance. She said the internship taught her customer service and conflict management skills that will come in handy for her career goals. “But more importantly, through my internship at MDHS and with encouragement from my supervisor, Kendra Campbell, I was able to become heavily involved with the Oxford community,” Griggs said.

As the hometown of Ole Miss, Oxford is a largely affluent community, but not everyone has it so easy. “As a student, I had known Oxford as a picturesque, small college town, but at MDHS I witnessed the struggles that families and individuals face daily,” Griggs said. “As a student, it’s easy to forget that there are people on campus and in the community who struggle to obtain their basic needs like food and housing—things we often take for granted. I’m grateful for this experience, for not only showing me that every community has opportunities for growth but also introducing me to other leaders in our community who continue to inspire me in my academic and career goals through their passion for creating programs to fill these gaps and reach typically underserved populations.”

Griggs’ commitment to service made her a natural choice for the Sullivan Award, according to UM faculty and staff members who nominated her. One of the nominators noted that Griggs’ internship with MDHS “is perhaps the most prominent example of her selfless service to her community. She would talk to me often about the aid applicants that she would interview and assist day-to-day, expressing genuine empathy [and a] desire to help these people in whatever way she could. This experience helped her gain a better understanding of the underserved in the Oxford community and only increased her desire to do whatever she could to improve these people’s lives.”

“She is my role model,” another nominator wrote in a letter recommending Griggs for the award. “I am just one of the many people in the community whose life she has touched in a positive way. I am absolutely sure that she will only broaden her outreach in the pursuit of her goals, which all center around community development. She is determined to improve the state of affairs in her home state of Mississippi.”

But where exactly will the future take her? “I’m not really sure yet,” she said. “I’m working on my thesis now and know that will take up a lot of my time over the next few months. Right now, I’m planning on taking a gap year to do a year of service and would love to continue doing capacity building for nonprofits.”

In other words, wherever she goes next and wherever she stays, Griggs plans to help make it a better place for everyone.