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What Does Retirement Look Like For Ringling Bros. Elephants?

70 year-old female Asian elephant, Mysore, at Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation.
70 year-old female Asian elephant, Mysore, at Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation.

The “Greatest Show on Earth” is underway this weekend at Orlando’s Amway Center. This may be your last chance to see an endangered Asian elephant in person. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will end elephant shows by May. Where will these elephants retire? Right here, in sunny central Florida of course.

Pull into Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City and you see dirt roads surrounded by wide open fields of green grass. Scan the farm’s panorama and bam! A massive Asian elephant, double humps at the top of its head, and then another, both standing out in the sun in the distance.

Ringling Director of Animal Stewardship Janice Aria drives a golf cart up to an outdoor enclosure filled with sand, the perimeter roped off. Inside, an adorable young elephant raises a foot for his trainer.

A trainer asks two-year old Mike to blow a rectangular wooden instrument. He earnestly curls up his dark, gray trunk into the shape of an “S”. The trainer holds the wooden flute up to the hole at the tip of Mike’s trunk.

Mike’s vacuum-like trunk curiously sniffs shoes and pokes around at everything new.

The center was founded 20 years ago to research, reproduce and house retired elephants and those who just didn’t take to the stage. It’s home to the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere. 29 elephants currently reside at the CEC. Elephants are highly intelligent, social creatures. They also rarely get cancer. Researchers in Salt Lake City are studying why as a way to improve the treatment of pediatric cancer.

Erik Montgomery cares for seven elephants day in, day out. Montgomery backs up his commands with a physical “guide” as he calls it, otherwise known as a bullhook. It’s an arms-length stick with a metal tip at the end.

“We have different areas on their bodies that are designed, or designated for cues and we touch it with the guide and because our arms are rather short and they're such big animals, we have the guide to bring them toward us or move them away from us, essentially a steering wheel,” said Montgomery.

“Accredited sanctuaries which provide true retirement for elephants never use bullhooks," says PETA counsel Rachel Mathews. “Instead they use a system called 'protected contact' which only uses positive reinforcement and all interactions with the animals occurs through a protective barrier. This training method is also used by the vast majority of zoos in the country,” she said.

A handful of cities across the country have banned the bullhook saying it’s an abusive weapon used to inflict pain and punishment. CEC trainers, at least on this tour, appear to use the bullhook to gently guide the elephants.

Activists also take issue with the center’s electric prods and the routine chaining of elephants, which they say causes foot problems. Ringling Animal Stewardship Director Janice Aria defends the practice.

"At night they are [chained on concrete], it’s part of our husbandry plan and it’s also approved by the USDA and inspected by the USDA, so since we work them in free contact which involves the use of the tool, the guide, at night they’re tethered one front leg and opposite back leg and every day that’s alternated,” said Aria.

PETA would rather the elephants go to accredited sanctuaries in California and Tennessee. Mathews said those sanctuaries give elephants thousands of acres to roam, swimming ponds, and more opportunities to socialize.

This weekend, a group of twirling Ringling elephants donning the iconic head pieces will leave spectators in awe. Aria said their final acts are bittersweet. She sees the joy in people’s faces when they get to see so many elephants up close.

“Having had years of experience of seeing people respond as they do to the sight of an elephant, let alone a few elephants, let alone a line of elephants, I know that people will miss that and I’ve always felt so grateful to be a part of bringing that to cities all across the country,” said Aria, who was once a circus clown.

Audiences will see the Asian elephant until they exit the big top in May.