For about two decades, elephants that performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus were sent to a reserve in central Florida when they became too old to balance on two legs and parade around arenas doing tricks and dancing for large crowds.

Animal rights’ groups have long called the breeding farm and retirement refuge problematic. It is owned by the parent group of the now-closed circus, and there have been reports of elephants being chained in concrete enclosures and some having foot and leg problems.

But in recent weeks, the former circus elephants have begun moving to a 135-acre sanctuary, one that is not affiliated with the circus that for years was accused of mistreating and abusing the gentle giants.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus's Asian elephants had their final performances in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Providence, R.I., on May 1, 2016. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Three weeks after being let loose in the White Oak Conservation center in Yulee, Fla., the first group of elephants has been exploring the new surroundings, and staff members say they don’t see some of them for days at a time. When they do spy the large animals, they say, they are swimming in the deep end of a pond or having a dust bath, followed by a nap in the shade. They also snack on watermelon and banana buffets.

Employees say it was an emotional moment to watch the elephants walk out of their barn together for the first time into the lush acreage.

“There was more than one wet eye that day,” said Michelle Gadd, who leads the White Oak preserve for endangered and threatened species such as cheetahs, rhinos, okapi, zebras and condors. “I really loved seeing one of the elephants just flop down in the forest, close her eyes and have a good solid nap for an hour. Just to see her that comfortable that she’d have a snooze under a palm tree was really beautiful.”

Some of the elephants, she said, will stay in the woods for up to four days until they show up at the barn again for treats.

Ringling Bros. retired all of its elephants in 2016, ending a 145-year tradition, after pushback from the public about the pachyderms being forced to perform. Bullhooks, which resemble fire pokers and were used to control elephants during training, were also banned in cities and states across the United States.

Ringling, however, has maintained that its trainers lovingly looked after the elephants. In 2014, Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling, received a multimillion-dollar settlement paid by a collection of animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, over unproven allegations that the circus was mistreating elephants.

A year-and-a-half after the elephants were retired, the circus closed shop because of declining ticket sales.

Animal rights activists celebrated because of the show’s history of using animals as performers, but some circus enthusiasts called the closing bittersweet. Humans have long been drawn to elephants, as the enormous and clever animals have demonstrated remarkable memories and close-knit family structures.

The Washington Post took an exclusive tour of the Center for Elephant Conservation to check in on the retired circus elephants. (McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

Philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter arranged to purchase all 32 of the former Ringling Bros. elephants and have them transported 200 miles from Central Florida to Yulee, outside Jacksonville. The Walters bought the 17,000-acre White Oak sanctuary in 2013, and have been expanding it since.

A dozen female Asian elephants arrived at White Oak in March and April and will eventually be joined by another 12 females and eight males as additional acreage is prepared for their arrival, Gadd said. The herd is the largest community of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere, she said.

The youngest elephant there is 8 years old, while the oldest is 75, Gadd said, noting that the average life span for an Asian elephant in captivity is about 48 years.

Eventually, the elephant portion of the refuge will cover 2,500 acres and feature nine linked areas with enough water holes, forests, grasslands and wetlands to support the entire herd, said Nick Newby, 41, who leads the elephant caretaker team and helped plan the habitat.

“We wanted it to be as natural as possible, and we wanted to consider the social dynamic as well,” Newby said. “Elephants are very sociable animals, so we like to study them, see what their personalities are like and then try to mix and match them with other elephants they might like to cohabitate with.”

He and his team packed up the youngest female pachyderms first after getting them comfortable with being coaxed inside a trailer, Newby said.

“They have traveled a lot, so that went in our favor,” he said.

Once the first 135 acres of the habitat were finished, the crew then made the three-hour drive with two 8,000-pound elephants in each trailer and moved them into a climate-controlled barn until they were comfortable enough with their surroundings to be let out on April 19.

“They’re incredibly smart. From the very first day, they figured out ways to make noise to get the attention of Nick and their other humans to give them more snacks,” Gadd said.

“They learned which doors they could rattle and what things they could shake,” she said. “The girls definitely tested everything and used it to their advantage.”

For Newby, who has worked with elephants for 18 years (mostly in zoos), there was a sense of elation as he watched the animals wander through their new home.

“It’s all about the elephants, so to see them out there doing natural elephant behaviors like swimming, was exhilarating and rewarding,” he said. “It’s magnificent for these animals to get to experience a large and complex place like this in their lives.”

After years of traveling from town to town, parading tail-in-trunk through arenas and living in confined spaces, the elephants deserve happiness, Gadd said.

Asian and African elephants are endangered in the wild because of loss of habitat and illegal poaching, she said. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that there are about 415,000 elephants in Africa, while less than 50,000 remain in Asia.

Wildlife conservation studies have shown that between 15,000 and 20,000 elephants are held in zoos or are still used by safari companies and circuses around the world.

“Whether you went to the circus or you didn’t, elephants along the way have always been taken into captivity and made to work for people and entertain people,” Gadd said. “So to be part of this turning of the tables and to finally be able to give something back to elephants is just really satisfying.”

Plans haven’t yet been developed for the public to view the elephants from afar, but Newby said the ultimate goal would be for somebody to look through a pair of binoculars at the White Oak refuge and feel as though they were watching elephants in their natural habitat.

“The gentle giants at the sanctuary are ambassadors for elephants in the wild,” he said. “It’s our duty to make sure that their future is better than their past, and that their tomorrows are better than their yesterdays.”

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