12 Former Circus Elephants Settle Into Refuge Home

They have forests, ponds, and wetlands to explore.

elephants at White Oak Conservation
Elephants in one of the outdoor habitats.

Stephanie Rutan / White Oak Conservation

A dozen former circus elephants recently arrived at their new home at a wildlife refuge in northern Florida.

The 12 female Asian elephants, ranging from 8 to 38 years old, had once traveled with Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey. Now they’re settling in at White Oak Conservation, a 17,000-acre facility in Yulee, about 30 miles north of Jacksonville.

The elephants had been living at a Ringling Bros. farm in Polk City, Florida, about 200 miles away for three years. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced in March 2015 that it would retire its elephants by 2018. Because they’ve lived their lives in captivity, the elephants were unable to return to the wild.

“White Oak hired animal care specialists with elephant experience from zoos and other wildlife areas, and those people began getting to know the elephants and socializing them with one another three years ago,” Michelle Gadd, who leads Walter Conservation, tells Treehugger.

(White Oak, owned by attorney Kimbra Walter and her husband, businessman and Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter, is a division of Walter Conservation, which is devoted to saving endangered species.)

The first habitat and barns were completed this spring. The elephants traveled two per customized truck, spending about 4-6 hours on the road, depending on traffic. Veterinarians and animal care specialists rode with them.

“Upon arrival, the elephants walked out of the trucks, into the paddocks and barn, until all 12 were back together, then we opened the gates and released them into the forest,” Gadd says.

Getting Settled and Socialized

elephant foraging at White Oak Conservation
An elephant forages in the forest. Stephanie Rutan / White Oak Conservation

The group includes two sets of full siblings (Piper and Mable, and April and Asha), as well as numerous half-sisters. Five of them have the same father but different mothers and four others have another father but different mothers. All of them were born in the U.S.

“They have all been at the same farm in Polk City for the past several years,” Gadd says. “They knew each other by sight, scent, and sound, but many had not previously been together in the same areas or enclosures, so we had to work that out—find out who got along with whom, who prefers to be with whom, who picks on whom, etc.”

All the elephants are healthy and the acclimation process has been smooth, Gadd says. They are active and very inquisitive.

“After thoroughly testing all the walls and bars and hoses in their new barn, they now can walk throughout a 135-acre area, and can look for plants to eat or new objects to look at or play with or use as tools (e.g. they break branches and hold them in their trunks to scratch their underbellies).”

The elephant barn has high vaulted ceilings, windows, water fountains, and climate control systems. They can go outdoors and explore various habitats, including pine forests, wetlands, and open grasslands. They have been wandering in the woods, swimming in the ponds, and wallowing in the mud.

The social groups shift, with the elephants forming different combinations. Sometimes they’re all together, while sometimes they are in pairs or foursomes, or sometimes they prefer to be alone. Luna, one of the two oldest elephants nearly always stays with the youngest, Piper.

“We can definitely see individual personalities, Gadd says. “Some of the elephants are loners, some like a crowd, some like to remind the others who is boss, some like having a little sidekick alongside, many enjoy testing the trees and branches, throwing things around.”

More Elephants To Come

elephants walk toward a pond at White Oak Conservation
Elephants head toward a pond. Stephanie Rutan / White Oak Conservation

Asian elephants are classified as endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). There are only an estimated 50,000 or so animals left in the wild with the population numbers decreasing. They are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching, and conflicts with humans.

There are 20 elephants still at the Polk City farm under the care of White Oak keepers. They’re set to join April, Myrtle, Angelica and the rest. When and who will come depends on how soon new facilities can be completed and the health and social dynamics of the group, Gadd says.

White Oak Conservation conducts limited scheduled tours due to the pandemic. However, visitors cannot currently visit the elephants while additional habitats and barns are under construction.

View Article Sources
  1. "Elephants arrive at White Oak Conservation in Florida." White Oak Conservation, 2021.

  2. Williams, C., et al. "Asian Elephant." IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2019, doi:10.2305/iucn.uk.2020-3.rlts.t7140a45818198.en