Retired Circus Elephants Get New 2,500-Acre Refuge To Call Their Own

With most circuses discontinuing the use of animal performers, the question of what to do with the animals that have only known circus life has arisen.

For a group of about 40 elephants that used to perform in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, life has been largely limited to a 200-acre enclosure at the Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Florida since their retirement in 2016.

However, critics have accused that facility of not being up to the task of caring for the elephants.

A Reuters reporter toured the facility in 2016 and found "dozens of elephants corralled in groups of twos and threes in scrub-filled areas about the size of suburban back yards that gave them enough room to walk around and included toys. At night they stay in large barns, with their feet often chained to keep them from stealing each other’s food."

Fortunately, conditions are about to change for the better for these retired performers.

Staying within Florida, the elephants are headed to a new, 2,500-acre wildlife refuge.

White Oak Conservation Center, just north of Jacksonville, has about 17,000 acres in all, but 2,500 acres of interlinked areas — with a variety of vegetation and habitat types including wetlands, meadows, and woods — will be for the elephants to roam free, according to a press release.

The herd, 26 females and eight males, have never really lived in the wild before so it will take some time for them to adjust. Caretakers will be on hand to help with the transition and a team has already been working with them to learn their personalities and nuances.

White Oak Conservation Center is owned by philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter.

They're committed to providing a proper facility for the elephants to call home, they say. "Elephants are majestic and intelligent animals, and they are in dire need," Kimbra Walter said in the press release. "For too long, humans have decimated the native habitats, poached, and removed these animals from their natural home."

"Our family is committed to improving the lives of individual elephants and ensuring the survival of elephants in the wild," Mark added.

The new facility is still under construction, however.

In addition to the many habitat types spread across the 2,500 acres, the facility is building 11 watering holes big enough for the elephants to wade in and three barns to house veterinary equipment and space for their care. Everything is being designed by experts in elephant care associated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

"AZA strongly supports White Oak Conservation’s efforts on behalf of elephants," Dan Ashe, President and CEO of AZA, said in the press release. "By providing these elephants the space to explore, to interact with one another, and to engage in natural behaviors, they are being given a key element in animal welfare and wellness — choice."

It's expected that the first elephants will start to move into the new refuge in 2021.

Unfortunately, not all of the herd will be able to make the move. The oldest elephant in the herd is 74 and another is blind so they'll be staying behind, WLTV reported.

The elephants will start trickling to the new facility in small groups, Michelle Gadd — who is in charge of the Walters' conservation efforts — told WLTV.

"We are making this change extremely gradually … take it slow and we're going to get them there and let them go. Leave them undisturbed to just chill out and get used to their new world," she explained.

h/t: WLTV, White Oak Conservation Center

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