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After years of intense public pushback, the now-shuttered Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus finally announced the retirement of their Asian elephant performers in 2016. While the decision was a resounding victory for animal lovers and activists, it raised a new issue. The mighty pachyderms were raised in captivity and lacked the skills to survive in the wild. Now, thanks to Florida-based White Oak Conservation, the animals have a new home — one where they can roam freely.
Located about 30 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida, the sprawling 17,000-acre facility is home to between 350 and 400 animals comprising 35 endangered species. They include rhinos, cheetahs, giraffes, and okapis.
The conservation center welcomed the first batch of retired circus elephants in May 2021. The 12 female elephants, which include two sets of full sisters and numerous half-sisters, range from 8 to 38 years old. To make the transition easier, they were socialized together for several months before being moved. The majestic animals will be joined by the remaining 20 as soon as the additional areas to house them are completed.
The 2,500-acre sanctuary is modeled after the elephant's natural habitat in the wild. The diverse environments include pine forests, meadows, and wetlands, all connected for easy transition by foot. The animals can wander in the woods, relax in the mud, or swim in one of the eleven specially-built water holes. The elephants can also spend their days relaxing inside the specially-built barns close to their human caregivers.
"We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore,” said the conservation center's owners Mark and Kimbra Walter. "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.”
White Oak Conservation is not the only non-profit helping rehabilitate retired circus elephants. On September 23, 2021, Georgia-based Elephant Refuge North America (ERNA) will welcome Bo. The 34-year-old male elephant has spent the past 30 years performing for the George Carden Circus.
Bo will be housed in a seven-acre habitat complete with pastures, woods, a pond, and a new custom-designed, fully automated elephant house. The pachyderm's habitat will be expanded to 100 acres once ERNA can raise sufficient funds to reinforce the perimeter fencing. The conservation center also hopes to add nine more retired elephants to the sanctuary.
Resources: whiteoakwildlife.org, elephantaidinternational.org