Pampering and Preservation
By Dale King and Julia Hebert
Circus elephants – particularly those who spend their performing years with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth” – don’t pay FICA or collect Social Security, but they have a pretty cool retirement plan. Once they complete their days of entertaining vast crowds who oooh and aaah at the presence of precocious pachyderms, they can do what many humans do: Leave the working world and retire to Florida.
Just outside Orlando is a 200-acre preserve called the Center for Elephant Conservation where
some 30 massive Asian land mammals enjoy the $5 million facility built in 1995 by Feld Entertainment, owner for nearly 50 years of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey franchise. “It provides plenty of food, water, shade, places to sleep and areas to groom for the immense former circus actors,” said Stephen Payne, vice-president of corporate communications. Chairman and CEO Kenneth Feld, whose father acquired the circus from John Ringling North in 1967, said the Center was created “to ensure people will be able to experience the glory and wonder of Asian elephants for generations to come.”
Payne emphasizes the sheer fascination of seeing an elephant up close. “It’s so much better than watching one on TV or seeing a picture in a book. Our 10 million annual circus visitors are only a trunk’s length away from the towering creatures. Elephants are rated the No. 1 reason why people go to the circus,” Payne said.
A Closer Look at the Elephant Conservation Center
At the Conservation Center, more than a dozen staff members dedicate their lives to making sure Asian elephants are here to stay. There are fewer than 35,000 of the endangered animals left in the world. The largest and only sustainable herd of Asians is at the center outside Orlando. “We have enough genetic diversity to continue birthing babies,” said Payne. Since the center opened, 26 elephant tykes have been born on Florida soil, including one youngster who arrived in January 2009, on the eve of President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. That foundling, now “a vibrant, adolescent male” – is named Barack. Other newborns have taken such monikers as Piper (the youngest at just about 2½ years of age), Nate, Mike and, of course, P.T., in honor of the man who created the circus a century and a half ago, P.T. Barnum.
The Science Side
The playful, sometimes mischievous, elephants may not be privy to it, but the Conservation Center is actually a research facility, as well as a retirement center. While they spend a lot of time exploring the tree-lined acreage that stretches across a grassy plain, they must occasionally report for examinations. That’s usually when the researchers move in.
Dennis Schmitt, DVM, Ph.D., chairman of veterinary services and director of research, led the team that worked on the first birth of an elephant by artificial insemination in 1999. Wendy Kiso, Ph.D., research and conservation scientist, is largely responsible for devising methods of elephant sperm storage through freezing. She had worked to save endangered Asian elephants and tigers before creating a genome bank.
Former circus performers have joined the staff. Janice Aria, MS, director of animal stewardship, along with her husband and brother, were partners in a bear act and dog act for some 20 years before moving on to the Conservation Center. There, she is responsible for designing and implementing a standardized curriculum of best practices for animal husbandry and training.
“We do considerable work in Sri Lanka,” said Payne. “In this Southeast Asia island nation that’s about the size of West Virginia, the number of elephants and humans is about equal, resulting in considerable ‘human-elephant conflict’ (HEC). That’s why Ringling Brothers is working with the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation to come up with solutions. By partnering with two major Sri Lankan universities, we’ve shared our veterinary and elephant husbandry experience with them.
“The center has also helped diagnose and treat an especially nasty strain of elephant herpes,” Payne said. “Barack actually contracted it twice, but was treated and cured. Sadly, it attacks juvenile elephants. We have been working with the Smithsonian Institute.
We have had a lot of luck controlling it in baby elephants. Because we started Barack’s treatment so early, we probably saved his life.
“The circus is the first and foremost proponent of animal welfare. I educate people about what we do versus what some people say we do. The elephants are comfortable around our people. They trust our staff and that is a huge benefit.”
“Working with elephants on a daily basis is such a high-caliber thrill,” said Janice Aria. “There is also that daily sense of wonder that comes from looking at one of the most magnificent creatures on Earth.”