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Circus Elephants Retire in Florida Wildlife Refuge

With soft beaches, warm weather, and amazing health care, it’s no wonder so many Americans choose to retire in Florida. The retirees of Yulee, a town 30 minutes outside of Jacksonville, are about to receive some unusual neighbors looking to retire in style. Thirty former circus elephants will live out their twilight years in the comfort and care of White Oak Conservation in a custom-built habitat. 

White Oak, a part of The Walter Conservation, covers roughly 17,000 acres of Northeast Florida, and it has a history of successful care for endangered and threatened animals such as cheetahs, zebras, rhinoceros, dama gazelles, and now Asian elephants. The habitat they are building for the retired elephants will span 2,500 acres made up of nine interlinking areas that the elephants will be free to roam as they wish, White Oak stated in a press release.

The habitat will include a diverse landscape of grasslands, woods, wetlands, and meadows, along with a variety of vegetation for the animals to enjoy. White Oak believes in allowing animals the freedom to “act natural” and for elephants that means having a large space to roam.  “By providing these elephants the space to explore, to interact with one another, and to engage in natural behaviors, they are being given a key element in animal welfare and wellness — choice,” noted Dan Ashe, president and chief executive officer of The Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Asian elephants are an endangered species that have disappeared from 95% of their historical range, according to White Oak. These 30 elephants will be free to wander and forage to their heart’s content, and they will have access to 11 waterholes specifically designed to accommodate frolicking, splashing elephants. “So the elephants will be able to choose where they want to spend their days. For many of these animals, this will be their first time foraging for their own food. This will be their first time making their own choices about which grasses to eat and which tree branches they prefer. And this will be, for many of them, their first time out in nature with a chance to watch birds or come across a turtle or a deer,” Michelle Gadd, chief of conservation for White Oak, told the Orlando Sentinel.

White Oak has made an effort to not separate family groups, so the conservation center aims to keep mothers with calves, siblings with siblings, and even grandmothers with their grandchildren. With elephants ranging from 8-60 years old, it’s important that the animals are allowed to interact freely. Elephants are extremely intelligent animals that build lasting family relationships, so it’s significant that White Oak is building them a habitat where their natural social interactions can take place. Three custom-built barns will help shelter the animals and a newly hired team of elephant specialists will provide world-class veterinary care.

The majority of the elephants transferring to White Oak’s new habitat are retired performers from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. More than half of the elephants were born in the United States, and have been under the care of Ringling Bros. parent company, Feld Entertainment, since 2016 when the elephants were retired from the circus act. Now the elephants will wander, explore, and play. White Oak Conservation’s education and outreach teams are currently researching the best ways for students to observe and even interact with incoming elephants. The team hopes to use the habitat as a tool to teach the thousands of students who visit White Oak about the majesty and beauty of these endangered animals. 

The passionate staff at White Oak approach conservation by preserving and protecting habitats, guaranteeing security for wildlife, and working with host-country governments and locals to build lasting sustainable enterprises. White Oak reintroduced a number of animals back to their natural habitat of Africa including black rhinos, bongo antelope, and more. In Florida, they’ve helped rebuild populations of Florida panthers, Florida grasshopper sparrows, and Mississippi sandhill cranes, by working with the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Now they are turning their conservation efforts towards making a home for some of the planet’s largest pachyderms. Deborah Olson, executive director of the International Elephant Foundation, shared “It’s exciting to see these elephants transition into their home while continuing their strong history as ambassadors for their wild cousins. White Oak’s commitment to conservation and animal care makes it the perfect forever home for this herd.”

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