Asian elephants trained to spin in circles, stand on their heads, and dance have performed in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for the past 145 years. But that will soon come to an end. Last month, the circus announced that it would retire all of its elephants this year—that’s earlier than the 2018 deadline they’d originally planned.
The 11 elephants currently working in the circus’s traveling shows will go to Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation, a 200-acre ranch in Florida. The animals, which range in age from 5 to 47, will join 29 previously retired circus elephants already living at the center.
TIME FOR A BREAK
Why is Ringling Bros. retiring their elephants now? For years, animal-rights activists have taken issue with the methods the circus uses to train and control its elephants. But the decision to retire the animals wasn’t due to pressure from animal-welfare groups, says Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the owners of Ringling Bros. He explains that the circus was having a harder time traveling with its elephants as more cities placed restrictions on housing, restraining, and transportation of the large animals.
In the wild, Asian elephants live in forests throughout Asia. But after years of poaching (illegal hunting), capture for domestic use, and habitat destruction, the animals are now considered endangered—at risk of extinction. There are fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild and only 250 living in the U.S.—mostly in zoos, with the remainder in sanctuaries and circuses.
The circus says it will now focus on conservation at its center by breeding its retired elephants to increase their numbers. Scientists will also study the animals to learn why they so rarely suffer from cancer—a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. The research could help doctors develop treatments to prevent cancer in humans.
Payne says that the retired elephants will spend their days with access to toys, sand, sunshine, pasture, and veterinary care. Their final performance takes place on May 1.