For about two decades, elephants that performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus were sent to a reserve in central Florida when they became too old to balance on two legs and parade around arenas doing tricks and dancing for large crowds. Animal rights’ groups have long called the breeding farm and retirement refuge problematic. It is owned by the parent group of the now-closed circus, and there have been reports of elephants being chained in concrete enclosures and some having foot and leg problems. But in recent weeks, the former circus elephants have begun moving to a 135-acre sanctuary, one that is not affiliated with the circus that for years was accused of mistreating and abusing the gentle giants.
Three weeks after being let loose in the White Oak Conservation center in Yulee, Fla., the first group of elephants has been exploring the new surroundings, and staff members say they don’t see some of them for days at a time. When they do spy the large animals, they say, they are swimming in the deep end of a pond or having a dust bath, followed by a nap in the shade. They also snack on watermelon and banana buffets. Employees say it was an emotional moment to watch the elephants walk out of their barn together for the first time into the lush acreage.
“There was more than one wet eye that day,” said Michelle Gadd, who leads the White Oak preserve for endangered and threatened species such as cheetahs, rhinos, okapi, zebras and condors. “I really loved seeing one of the elephants just flop down in the forest, close her eyes and have a good solid nap for an hour. Just to see her that comfortable that she’d have a snooze under a palm tree was really beautiful.” Some of the elephants, she said, will stay in the woods for up to four days until they show up at the barn again for treats. Some will stay in the woods for up to four days until they show up at the barn again for treats, says Michelle Gadd, who leads the preserve.
Ringling Bros. retired all of its elephants in 2016, ending a 145-year tradition, after pushback from the public about the pachyderms being forced to perform. Bullhooks, which resemble fire pokers and were used to control elephants during training, were also banned in cities and states across the United States.
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