Circus Elephants are Retiring to Florida

A conservation group built an elephant sanctuary for these majestic animals.

May 19, 2021
Circus Elephants are Retiring to Florida | A conservation group built an elephant sanctuary for these majestic animals.

Elephants are the largest land animals and live-in herds in the wild. Now a very special herd of 12 Asian elephants are retiring in style, in a lush new habitat at Florida's White Oak Conservation Center.

These elephants have worked hard as circus performers for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and were officially retired in 2016 according to CBS News. Elephant acts were a big part of the circus for almost 146 years but the company bowed to public pressure and retired the animals.

The elephants were originally moved to a small preserve just south of Orlando, Florida but the nonprofit  Walters Conservation purchased the 35 animals and began work on constructing the new habitat. The first 12 females aged eight to 38 arrived in late April 2021.

Elephant sanctuaries are really important because these majestic creatures are endangered in the wild. According to the WWF there are only 40,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants in the wild. The animals were decimated by the trade in ivory, poaching, and by habitat loss. 

We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore,” said Mark and Kimbra Walter, the founders of the conservation organization in a press release. “We are working to protect wild animals in their native habitats. But for these elephants that can’t be released [they are dependent on humans], we are pleased to give them a place where they can live comfortably for the rest of their lives.”

The animals were moved the approximate 200 miles in pairs, using customized trucks and were accompanied by veterinarians and elephant care specialists. At first, they were kept in two paddocks to acclimate and to be monitored by vets. But now, they are free to roam the habitat where they can play in the mud or swim in the pond.

“Watching the elephants go out into the habitat was an incredible moment,” said Nick Newby, who leads White Oak's expert team. “I was so happy to see them come out together and reassure and comfort each other, just like wild elephants do, and then head out to explore their new environment. Seeing the elephants swim for the first time was amazing.”

The animals have begun to interact like a wild herd, Michelle Gadd, who oversees the organization's conservation efforts, told CBS News. “They seem to have sorted out a hierarchy amongst themselves," she said. "They regrouped right outside the fence and again reassured each other. Rumbled, touched each other, put their trunks in one another's mouths.”

This is the way things should be, she said, instead of being trained to be ridden, do tricks, and entertain people like at the circus. “Just let them be where they are and there's nothing more beautiful than that.

The goal is to move the rest of the elephants after the sanctuary habitat is completed. “In the last few years, everything has changed for these elephants for the better — from their retirement to the way they interact with humans and the space they have to roam,” Steve Shurter, White Oak’s executive director said in the press release. “For the first time in their lives, these elephants can choose where and how they want to spend their days.”

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Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.