Elephants from circus to start retirement in Polk County

POLK COUNTY, FL (WFLA) — The elephants from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus officially retired at their new home in Polk County Friday. Twenty-one elephants paraded into the Center for Elephant Conservation and were treated to a welcome home buffet. Eleven of them are the last of the performing circus elephants.

“They’re going to enjoy being elephants. They’re going to get plenty of food, plenty of veterinary care. They’re also going to be part of some groundbreaking research,” said Stephen Payne, a vice president at Feld Entertainement, which owns the circus. “It’s 200 acres. They will be with comparable social groups. Not all elephants get along with other elephants. So plenty of play time, sand, grass and areas to graze. It’s a good retirement home in Florida for them.”

Altogether, there will be around 39 elephants living at the center. It is the largest Asian elephant herd in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Center for Elephant Conservation.

The center has breeding and cancer research programs. Cancer is less common in elephants than humans, and elephant cells contain 20 copies of a major cancer-suppressing gene, compared with just one copy in humans. A researcher at the University of Utah is working with Ringling to study the elephants’ blood cells. Now this large herd will help researchers discover more about the cancer-suppressing gene. That could lead to new treatments for pediatric cancers.

Forcing elephants to perform in a circus has been a controversial subject for years. Elephants have performed in American circuses for more than 200 years, but animal rights activists object to their use. Dozens of cities have banned the use of bullhooks, which are used to train elephants.

In March of 2015 Feld Entertainment announced all of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey’s touring elephants would move to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation by 2018. The plans came to fruition much sooner.

The elephants performed for the final time at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on Sunday. Six Asian elephants performed in Providence, Rhode Island, and five performed in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, during several shows on Sunday. Their final curtain call ended the controversial 145-year practice of using the animals.

“Our company and our family’s commitment to save the majestic Asian elephant will continue through our breeding program, research and conservation efforts at the Center,” Feld Executive Vice President Alana Feld said. “This transition will also allow us to fully focus on the role our elephants have in the pioneering pediatric cancer research project with Dr. Schiffman.”

Elephant history author Ronald B. Tobias says people would rather see elephants in a natural habitat rather than in a circus or zoo. Animal advocates have pushed for them to be released into the wild.

“The people who say that don’t know the first thing about caring for a 9,000-pound Asian elephant. Most of these elephants of been around people their entire lives. Sadly, there is no wild anymore,” Payne said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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