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35 ex-circus elephants get new life as they arrive in Florida sanctuary to retire among forest and wetlands

The White Oak Conservation Center will have landscapes including wetlands, grasslands, woodlands, and 11 waterholes, big enough for the elephants to wade in.

35 ex-circus elephants get new life as they arrive in Florida sanctuary to retire among forest and wetlands
Image Source: Facebook/White Oak Conservation

The circus was always thought of as a fascinating and fun place to be when we were children. But one person's idea of paradise can easily be another's idea of hell. Especially if the other happens to be the animals forced to perform tricks for people's entertainment. Unlike humans, it is hardly possible that a tiger, elephant, or bear wanted to run away from home to join the circus. Conservationist Michelle Gadd, however, used to dream of being able to run away to the circus to free all the animals. And now that dream is coming true. Elephants, who are being retired from circuses, are now being taken to their new homes in nature.

A total of 35 Asian elephants from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are being taken away to their "retirement home," a lush new habitat at Florida's White Oak Conservation Center. Elephant performances were a part of the attraction for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's circus for most of its 146-year history. CBS News reported that the elephant act was finally retired in 2016. This was after years of public outcry against what many considered to be animal cruelty. The freed elephants were first moved to a small preserve near Orlando. Walter Conservation, a nonprofit, later bought the 35 elephants to take them away to the conservation center that was being constructed.



The first herd arrived earlier this month and at least 20 more former elephants are set to arrive at the refuge funded by philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter. The conservation center also houses other rare animal species and will be able to accommodate more animals as the construction of additional areas is completed. “We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore,” Mark and Kimbra Walter said in a statement. “We are working to protect wild animals in their native habitats. But for these elephants that can’t be released, we are pleased to give them a place where they can live comfortably for the rest of their lives.”



The elephants were finally allowed to move about freely and even started bonding as a herd. Gadd noted that this was the first time the elephants even interacted as a herd. "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, and  put their trunks in one another's mouths." Their new home will allow them to live like elephants do in the wild, without performing tricks and wearing costumes. At White Oak, the elephants can choose from different landscapes including wetlands, grasslands, and woodlands. There are also 11 waterholes, each big enough for the elephants to wade in, according to National Geographic.



“Watching the elephants go out into the habitat was an incredible moment,” Nick Newby, who leads White Oak’s expert team recruited to care for the elephants, said. “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 area the elephants now live in will be constantly monitored by specialists and veterinarians who will ensure their well-being. They can choose to stay near the barn, close to their human caregivers, or "wander in the woods, wallow in the mud, and swim in the pond."




Asian elephants are endangered in the wild with only 30,000 to 50,000 elephants remaining. This particular group of Asian elephants is currently the largest Asian elephant herd in the western hemisphere. “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,” said Steve Shurter, White Oak’s executive director. “For the first time in their lives, these elephants can choose where and how they want to spend their days.”




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