A herd of Asian elephants that were once part of the Ringling Bros. Circus has found a new home at a Florida sanctuary. As of May, the elephants now live at White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida.
“We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore,” Mark and Kimbra Walter, the philanthropists that fund the refuge, said in a press release. “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 have been monitored by veterinarians and specialists, and have access to pine forests with ponds, wetlands, open grasslands and a barn over 2,500 acres. They have many food species available as well. They are now being handled through protective contact only.
“In the last few years, everything has changed for these elephants for the better — from retirement to the way they interact with humans and the space they have to roam,” Stever Shurter, White Oak’s executive director, said in the press release.
Asian elephants are an endangered species in the wild, where only about 30,000 to 50,000 remain in less than 15% of their historic range, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
“We wanted it to be as natural as possible, and we wanted to consider the social dynamic as well,” Nick Newby, who leads the elephant caretaker team, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Elephants are very sociable animals, so we like to study them, see what their personalities are like and then try to mix and match them with other elephants they might like to cohabitate with.”
The public may eventually be able to view the elephants through a pair of binoculars so as not to disturb them.
Ringling Bros. retired all of its elephants in 2016, and shuttered its operations in 2017 due to declining ticket sales. It had long been accused of mistreating the animals, but allegations remain unproven and the circus has always claimed that it took good care of the animals at its Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation. Officials from its parent group, Feld Entertainment, approached White Oak about buying its elephants and transferring its animals there and the purchase was announced in late 2020; the habitat and the animals have been undergoing preparation since then.
White Oak, a non-accredited sanctuary due to its breeding practices, is taking 30 of the circus’s 35 animals. One elephant is on loan to Fort Worth Zoo, while several others remain companions to an animal at Ringling’s facility who is too old to move.