Retired circus elephants come home with plenty of room to roam


The 12 female Asian elephants recently arrived at White Oak Conservation, outside of Jacksonville, Florida, and were released into a forest habitat with pine trees, ponds, wetlands and open grasslands, according to an advertisement from the shelter.

The elephants are between 8 and 38 years old and were previously owned by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

They were all born in the United States and have never lived in the wild, said Michelle Gadd, conservation chief for the Walter Family, who owns White Oak Conservation and purchased the circus animals.

“They are doing incredibly well. I am very surprised how quickly they adapted to the environment, how easily they got out of the doors as soon as the doors were opened,” Gadd told CNN.

She was afraid that they would just hang around their barn because they are used to being with people, but Gadd said the elephants would sleep in the woods and venture out on their own for a few days at a time.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey retired their elephants in 2016 after complaints about their treatment by animal rights groups and regulators. The circus gave its last performances in 2017 after more than 100 years of existence.

White Oak also bought the farm where the female elephants had lived in Polk City, Florida, near Orlando, which Gadd says is much smaller and doesn’t have as many trees.

Asian elephants are listed as endangered with an estimated population of 40,000 to 50,000 in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund. They once roamed much of Asia, but are now limited to 15% of their original range. They are threatened by poaching, habitat loss and conflict with humans.
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This group of elephants has been socialized together for the past two years and includes two sets of full sisters and several half-sisters, Gadd said. They are also the youngest elephants and are expected to be the most adaptable.

Staff distributed hay, produce and special supplements for the elephants around the habitat, but Gadd said the elephants were starting to eat some of the food options that grew there.

They also like to dig up saw palmettes, and Gadd said they use the branches to scratch their undercarriage.
It took them a few days to get used to the pine trees, which bounced and hit an unsuspecting elephant in the face when they tried to smash them with their foreheads, Gadd said.

“On the first day it scared them and a woman rang and ran away,” Gadd said. “But by the third day, this tree was indeed flattened.”

The understanding will be joined by up to 20 additional elephants from the Polk City farm once additional construction is completed on the 2,500-acre area. The space can be divided into several habitats for different herds or to separate certain elephants. It will also have three barns equipped with high-tech veterinary equipment.

The second barn is expected to be built next year, but Gadd said they are not rushing the project.

Elephants can roam around in their new habitat and don't have to come back to their barn unless they want to.

“Elephants always come first,” Gadd said. “So our priority is to let them settle in and be undisturbed here and have all the room to themselves for a while with no construction crews, and no disturbance, and even no extra elephants coming in right away.”

Gadd said eight of Polk City’s elephants are males, which must be separated by “a whole new level of fortification” of fences, barns and transportation.

“Asian men aren’t known to form cohesive groups that tolerate each other,” Gadd said. “So we’re not going to move several males here until we have several habitats and barn spaces ready for them.

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Polk City Farm is also home to some of the oldest female elephants in the United States and some of them might not respond well to the change, or the 200 mile journey to White Oak, which requires specially customized trucks for them and their veterinarians and handlers.

“We will continue to care for the elephants there throughout their lives if they cannot be raised here,” Gadd said.

White Oak Conservation, a 17,000-acre refuge certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, home to many rare animals, including rhinos, cheetahs, and antelopes.
He worked with state and federal agencies to save Florida Panthers, Florida Grasshopper Sparrows, Mississippi Sandhill Cranes and whooping cranes, according to its website.

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