Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus open Conservation Center to preserve and study pachyderms for a possible human cancer cure.
The last 11 touring elephants from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrived in central Florida on Friday where they were treated along with a group of journalists to a grand buffet
Stephen Payne, a circus spokesman, told members of the gathered press that the last 11 touring elephants have arrived at the Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida after performing their last shows in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. They join 29 others already retired on the 200-acre center after the circus decided last year it would stop using elephant acts after many areas of the U.S. passed ordinances outlawing the use of bull hooks or forbidding wild animal acts altogether.
The last 11 touring elephants from Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus arrived in central Florida on Friday where they were treated along with a group of journalists to a grand buffet.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is owned by Feld Entertainment. High level management, meeting with news media said the expensive of changing acts and procedures to meet the legal requirements of the 115 cities where the circus appears each year is monetarily “prohibitive” and makes organizing the tours of the three traveling circus’s it owns “too difficult.”
Until the retirement of the pachyderms, Feld maintained a herd of 40 Asian elephants, the largest in North America. The company says while it is retiring the animals from the ring, they will still be used in a breeding program and for cancer research.
Last Friday, as media gathered to watch and learn, 23 members of the herd dined on a buffet brunch of carrots, apples, celery, bread and copious quantities of hay.
All of the elephants but one are females. Smokey, the lone male, was neutered long ago making him amenable to living peaceably with the herd.
"Smokey does not have the aggressive tendencies," said Payne. He noted that bull elephants that have not been fixed are solitary, territorial and generally highly aggressive.
The old adage about elephants living long lives appears to be true since the oldest elephant in the herd – Mysore – is 70 and still going strong
Mysore, a 70 year old Asian female elephant recently retired from performing in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus will now live out her days in the Sunshine State near Orlando, Florida.
Elephants have long symbolized the circus and their presence under the big top goes back to 1882 when P.T. Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America. Taking the name and making a slight variation, Walt Disney created Dumbo, the most famous elephant in America. Known for being able to fly with gigantic ears it is still common to hear someone with big ears called “Dumbo.” Indeed, elephants have pervaded our popular culture and for many, their removal from the circus will be sorely missed.
According to circus “menagerie men:” or animal handlers, tigers, dogs,goats, and a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders will still be enjoyed by attendees who love to see animals in the acts.
Though animal rights activists will continue to object to the use of these animals by the circus, they see the retirement of the elephants as a big coup in the fight for animal rights. Citing the social nature and high intelligence of elephants, groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) point to the fact that “elephants are social in the wild and enjoy living in family-like environments.”
“Traveling around the country in crowded rail cars isolated from other members of the herd created an inhumane environment and caused depression in the animals,” PETA said.
The Associated Press explored a novel idea that some in the animal rights community mused might have been the impetus for the Feld family's decision to retire elephants from the show.
It was the backlash against the use of intelligent mammals in theater brought on by the documentary, “Blackfish,” a film that explored why the killer whale Tilikum killed Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
The documentary was built around the premise that keeping killer whales in captivity makes them more aggressive to humans and to each other. It has been widely discussed and since the film was aired, noted entertainers have pulled out of performances at SeaWorld around the world and Southwest Airlines halted its co-marketing partnership with the parks.
The move to retirement has taken Feld less time than it thought when it announced in 2015 that it would retire the full herd to the Florida center by 2018. According to company officials, completion of the Center with its numerous building and offices, including brand new housing for the elephants, was completed two years ahead of schedule. Feld also told reporters that it costs roughly $65,000 a year for each elephant in the herd.
The Center for Elephant Conservation is located in rural Polk City, between Orlando and Tampa. It is believed that Feld will eventually make some parts of the Center open to the public but details of those plans are being kept under wraps at the moment.
“Right now we just want to get the Center working well and see to it that the animals adjust to their new surroundings,’ said a company spokesman.
The battle to get the gentle giants out of the circus has been arduous and animal rights activists have long alleged that circuses have mistreated elephants.
One of the chief complaints by animal rights activists was the use of a curved stick called a bull hook which was used to get the massive pachyderms to move in the desired direction. Bull hooks became a familiar name after the movie “Water for Elephants” was released and a search of YouTube shows a number of clips allegedly showing trainers “abusing” the animals with the sticks to get their cooperation.
Trainers at the Conservation Center - one with a tattooed Dumbo on his arm - said that when used correctly the bull hook does not harm to elephants but does trainers safe from the massive and sometimes dangerous creatures.
"Do we use bull hooks? Yes, yes we do. It's the most humane and appropriate tool for working with large elephants. And that's just not our position. It's the position of the Department of Agriculture, our primary regulatory authority in the US. It's also the position of the American Veterinary Medical Association," Feld's Payne said. "The people who are trying to demonize this tool are doing it for political reasons and really don't know what it's like to take care of an elephant firsthand."
But despite a number of high profile legal actions, in the end none of them were successful in forcing Feld to retire the elephants. In fact, in 2014, Feld Entertainment won a $25.2 million settlement against a number of animal-rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States. That case was fought in the courts for 14-years over allegations that Ringling circus employees mistreated the elephants in their care. Nevertheless, there are no public records that show Ringling Brothers ever lost a single suit.
But in the end, it wasn’t the lawsuits, it was the number and variety of local regulations that made Feld decide to create the Center and retire these icons of the Big Top.
"You can't leave the elephants at the border," Payne told us. "If City A had different regulations than City B that posed a problem. So rather than continue to fight all these regulations, we decided to make an even greater investment here at the Ringling Brothers Centre for Elephant Conservation to really put our money, our time, all our efforts to make sure this species is going to be around for future generations."
The endangered elephants, closest living relatives to the extinct mastodon, will now be both bred and studied by researchers and scientists.
Noting that there are just 35,000 elephants worldwide with 28,000 of them in North America and 40 of those now at now 40 at the Conservation Center, the company says it will breed them to preserve the species. Because they are endangered, they can be neither imported nor exported. Some will probably be donated or loaned to zoos, but “they will not be sold,” Payne says.
Ringling scientist Wendy Kiso and others will continue to breed the elephants, preserving a species that has fewer truly wild habitats in Asia. Sometimes breeding is done naturally as in a female is introduced to a male, but most of the breeding's done by artificial insemination.
Even in retirement, controversies remain. In a statement released by Ringling’s Janice Aria, PETA still objects to the chaining of elephants overnight and during meals but Aria says it keeps them from fighting and stealing each other’s food. Reporters were allowed to observe the elephants for most of an entire day and at no point did anyone observe and mistreatment. In fact, one reporter observed that the elephants seemed “content” and mostly just bent on cajoling a treat as they “eagerly” lined up at their enclosures at the end of the day for a scrub-down and meal.
The silver lining for both man and beast may lie in the use of elephants in another capacity – medical research. Scientists plan to begin conducting blood draws from the herd for use in medical testing.
"We're hoping that 55 million years of elephant evolution can teach us something about cancer," Payne said.
Pediatric cancer doctor Dr. Joshua Schiffman, of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute, will lead a team to study their blood for clues into how humans can improve their cancer resistance.
While elephants have approximately a 100 times the number of cells humans have meaning they should be 100 times more likely to develop cancer, they rarely do. Schiffman’s theorizes this is because humans have only two cancer-fighting P-53 genes, while elephants have 40.
"We know that the elephants themselves rarely develop cancer and we believe this is due to the extra copies of this P-53 gene that they have in all of the cells in their body," Schiffman elaborated.
"By studying their blood closely and understanding how this P-53 gene works, what we're trying to understand is: Can we one day synthesise, make our own elephant P-53 in the laboratory, load it up in some type of novel delivery system to use as a drug to treat cancer or maybe - just maybe one day in the future – prevent cancer, the way that these elephants almost never develop cancer themselves."
Though PETA and other groups also object to the medical testing Schiffman says he merely tests the blood Ringling trainers routinely take to monitor the elephants for disease (They are particularly susceptible to a raging form of the Herpes virus).
“If we can find a cure for cancer we have an obligation to do so and I can tell you with certainty the elephants are not harmed in any way,“ the Doctor said with certainty.
Many researchers feel confident that Schiffman’s research is valuable and that by studying elephant metabolism and cell structure they may find a way to protect people from one of mankind’s worst diseases.
Whether a cure for cancer is ever found or the elephants just get a long-deserved retirement, in the end, it was a moving experience for the visiting journalists who shared their brunch with 13 of the biggest mammals on earth. After the shared meal the gentle giants were moved to their new digs, where they could finally unpack their “trunks” and gather their vaunted memories to reflect on how they entertained the people of America for over a 134 years.