Ringling Bros ‘Retire’ Elephants — Make Them Breeding Animals, Research Subjects Instead

Ringling Bros elephants participate in medical research.

Elephants, once stars of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” are being retired by Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus after significant pressure from animal rights groups. Now though, instead of jumping through hoops at the circus, these majestic, endangered animals have found a second career they never signed up for. The Florida residents will no longer be travelling the nation to entertain the populace, but their work isn’t quite done. Instead of a life on the road, elephants that were once part of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus are establishing a permanent home in a retirement facility in the Sunshine State.

The elephants’ lives will certainly be much more pleasant, according to countless news reports. In their new digs, they receive a diet of local fruits and vegetable and hay out of the spotlight. Sometimes, according to Science Daily, the animals will even enjoy baths and the occasional walk about their new 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation. Unlike traditional elephant sanctuaries, though, that try to mimic the mammals’ natural environment, there’s still work to be done. By 2018, all of Ringling’s elephants will have received their pink slips from the circus, and they will retire at their new sanctuary, where they will become part of a program that will involve breeding and medical research.

“If we didn’t do it, the elephants would go extinct in North America, likely in 25 years or less,” Kenneth Feld, chief executive officer of the circus’ owner, Feld Entertainment, explained. Granted, elephants are not native to North America, but Ringling Bros still wants the elephants to maintain a presence on the continent. Animal welfare groups aren’t impressed. Representatives from these groups would rather Ringling Bros retire the elephants to a more traditional sanctuary where they can do nothing but be elephants.

Of course, fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild, and currently there are about 250 Asian elephants in captivity in the U.S.. Only 26 of them have been born in the last two decades into Ringling Bros care. At the moment, 29 of the former circus performers reside in the facility in Florida, which is located about an hour south of the human retirement area known as “The Villages.”

Instead of wandering about, though, according to Science Daily, the elephants hang outside “outdoors in fenced enclosures where they are in sight or earshot of one another and enjoy loaves of white bread as an occasional treat. At night, they stay in large barns, with their feet often chained to keep them from stealing each other’s food.” While this is not the natural lifestyle of an elephant, Ringling Bros say they are helping to preserve the species.

The elephants continue to receive training so that it’s easier for the staff to manage them, take weekly blood samples from them, and procure specimens for medical research. These elephants now, in part, help contribute to the work of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, which is trying to improve diagnostics and treatment for a herpes virus that kills one-fifth of all elephants born in their non-native North America. Asian elephants, in particular, do not do well in captivity. Asian elephants in captivity have an infant mortality that is between 2.3 and 3.4 times the infant mortality of their Burmese working counterparts. While several animal species thrive in zoos, Asian elephants do not. Stress, obesity, and maternal neglect and infanticide due to maternal stress are among the probable reasons this species has such a low survival rate in zoos, according to experts, who claim that Asian elephants fare so badly in captivity in North America that their population is not sustainable. Problems for older Asian elephants in captivity in North America include unnatural, barren enclosures, stress from physical and mental abuse, and unnatural social grouping.

Ringling’s elephants participate in a Genomic Resource Bank specifically for the Asian elephant species. The elephants are also also contributing to human cancer research. The former circus animals are the ones that provided the blood samples to Dr. Joshua Schiffman of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, which recently published a study investigating why elephants so rarely get cancer.

The facility is not open to the public, according to Science Daily, but Feld says they are still considering how the elephants might be able to interact with the public.

“We bring things to you that you normally can’t see,” Feld said of the retired Ringling Bros’ Asian elephants. “Most people can’t afford to go to Sri Lanka.”

[Photo Credit: “Elefante-asiático no Zoológico de Sorocaba 2” | DavidStarIsrael7 – Own work | Cropped | CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons]