The Big Exit

The big exit

Elephants have been retired from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Will their lives be better?

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Published on October 27, 2016

The rail-car door was open just a crack. Just enough for a pink-speckled gray trunk to feel its way out, a creature all its own. Its single fingertip felt along the rail car’s lower edge, explored the crisp outside air. The mile-long Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train was parked in the sunshine along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. At the doors of two of the train’s cars, handlers were setting up ramps.

The trunk withdrew inside.

Two months from now, the circus’s elephants would give their last performance and transition to a Ringling facility in Florida, out of the public eye. As I followed the five elephants aboard this train through their final weeks on the road, Ringling called the transition the bittersweet end of a 145-year-old family-friendly tradition.


IMAGE ABOVE: The elephant Asia waits to make her grand entrance just before the start of the elephant act at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
CLICK TO PLAY: An exclusive look at life for the Ringling Bros. Circus elephants after retirement

Animal rights activists hailed it as a win against an inherently abusive form of entertainment.

Americans have long viewed elephants as fellow travelers. We see ourselves in their intelligence and emotional depth. I wondered: Now that elephants are departing from the circus that calls itself the Greatest Show on Earth, after so many years of making them perform for us, what have we learned about them? And what have we learned about ourselves?

The rail-car doors had been opened. At one of them, an enormous, wrinkled gray head was emerging. Her name was Asia. At 7,900 pounds, she was so big and so textured, and the rail car so industrial-silvery sleek and small in comparison, she looked like an alien stepping through a portal from another world.

Asia peers out from a circus train. Until May, she was part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Handlers surrounded the ramp like spotters. “Easy, Asia,” said one. She used her trunk to sweep the ramp the way a visually impaired human would use a cane, feeling for the way ahead. Asia was born wild somewhere on the continent for which she was named in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. The first record of her in this country was in 1971, when she was bought by an old elephant hand in the Catskills. That was two years before Congress banned the importation of endangered species like Asian elephants. Still a baby, she was among the last wild-born Asian elephants brought to this country. In 1988 she was sold to a powerboat-racing restaurateur who’d decided to have a go at the performing-elephant business. Ringling acquired her in 1991.

The long years of Asia’s life were visible in the profusion of pink speckling her face, trunk and ears. All her handlers agreed: Not much seemed to surprise Asia. She had seen cities, audiences and handlers come and go. She’d been quarantined and treated for tuberculosis. She was the alleged victim in a courtroom drama after a Humane Society inspector saw her get hit with a bull hook. Yet she’d still move toward humans whenever they came near.

Asia’s four traveling companions also got off the circus train’s two elephant cars. The biggest was Tonka at 11,000 pounds, then Luna at 8,200. Though they were in their early 30s and technically adults, Tonka and Luna were more like teenage besties, following each other around, sleeping side by side, standoffish toward outsiders. The other two elephants, 10-year-old Mable and 6-year-old April, were less than half their size and twice as energetic. All four were born in captivity in Florida.

The circus was on the road 48 weeks of every year, traveling 16,000 miles to 45 towns. Among the accommodations, fairgrounds were the roomiest, with dirt underfoot. In other locales, paddocks were set up in parking lots. But Ringling’s Red Unit circus had just come from two weeks in a cramped venue in downtown Baltimore. For the next five days they’d be living in the dimly lit concrete bowels of the District’s Verizon Center. On the road, it took 14 people to care for five elephants around-the-clock. The head and assistant elephant managers lived where the elephants lived, their RVs parked alongside the elephant paddock even in the tight quarters of an arena basement.

Animal rights activists like Pat Cuviello pointed to conditions like these as part of the problem, saying about a parking-lot setup, “That pen is a barren, boring environment, and there’s not enough room.” The limited space and hard floors take a toll on elephants’ feet and joints. Even Ringling people grumbled about the Baltimore and D.C. venues under their breath.

Terry Frisco with his charges in the cramped quarters under Verizon Center, where the circus performed in March.

Once the elephants were in their paddock below Verizon Center, the head elephant manager slumped in a nearby chair, looking spent. Terry Frisco is unimposing but intense; like Tonka and Luna, he was wary of strangers even on a good day. During the many hours I spent with the elephant crew over the next two months, he and I would never exchange a single word. However, his assistant and other members of the circus family were eager to talk to me. So were animal rights activists, who showered me with information, though some of their claims were demonstrably untrue. The elephants did not lack for people who cared about them.

Elephants have been the stars of American circuses since circuses began. Why the elephants? Why not the equally odd-looking camels or just-as-beautiful horses? What was it about elephants that drew humans to them? They’re smart, but so are primates. They’re big and long-lived, but so are whales. They live in close-knit families, but so do wolves. None of those other mammals has become such a part of our culture. We’ve got pink elephants, white elephants, the GOP mascot and the elephant in the room, while the name of the 19th century’s beloved Jumbo came to signify all things large. In the 20th century we grew up with Horton, Babar and Dumbo, Disney’s 1941 cartoon whose dark caricatures, without meaning to, managed to perfectly capture the disturbing contradictions of our elephant love.

If we love elephants so much, why have we caused them so much suffering?

Even a cursory look back over the past 200 years turns up a horror show of documented accounts involving a variety of American circuses: elephants immobilized for months, hung, poisoned, machine-gunned and electrocuted.

In 1796, 11,000 years after the first North American humans helped kill off the mastodons, one of their distant relatives arrived in New York City from Calcutta, India: a 2-year-old female Asian elephant. Evolved like humans to be cared for by her family, she would instead grow up alone, a one-elephant freak show in the raw, new United States of America.

Sixteen years later, a trick rider tied a wooden platform onto the elephant’s back, acrobats climbed up and performed, and the American circus was born, according to Ronald B. Tobias, author of “Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America.” By the late 1800s, P.T. Barnum’s circus was touring with as many as 40 elephants.

Asian elephants have been working for us for millennia. Not their African cousins, though, who are bigger and more rambunctious. Asian elephants, being relatively more manageable, were even employed as weapons of war. Hannibal famously tried to take elephants over the Alps to attack Rome. The invention of cannons put an end to war elephants, but in Asia they continue to work in places such as temples, logging camps and now tourist attractions.

The 280 or so Asian elephants in North America today are found mostly in zoos and circuses. To control circus elephants, handlers use the bull hook, a 2,500-year-old tool developed by mahouts in Asia. Used properly, it guides elephants through touch in combination with verbal cues and rewards. But with a pointed metal tip and hook, the bull hook is better known for being misused to stab and beat elephants. In the 19th century, Barnum’s head trainer relied on pain to compel elephants to do what he wanted. But the handler of Barnum’s most famous elephant, Jumbo, used the techniques of an elephant whisperer. “There have always been talented individuals, even in the 1800s, with skill levels that surpassed other handlers. They understood the animals and their behavior,” says Tony Barthel, curator for elephants at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

But even a cursory look back over the past 200 years turns up a horror show of documented accounts involving a variety of American circuses: elephants immobilized in chains for months, beaten, starved, hung, poisoned, machine-gunned and electrocuted. In 1999, veterinary technician Bryan Monell, then an undercover PETA investigator, video-recorded a beating at a smaller circus. “I was told you have to randomly beat down an elephant and make them fear you,” he recalls.

In the century before the Great Depression, abused circus elephants that killed their tormentors were sometimes viewed as criminals and executed. But more often, an elephant that broke its chains and left a swath of destruction through an American town was cheered on by crowds of average folks living hardscrabble lives. For them, the elephant’s rampage was probably the cathartic fulfillment of their own frustrated fantasies.

Starting in 1969, the legendary Ringling animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams pioneered a way of presenting wild animals in shows: as friendly partners rather than as dangerous beasts to be dominated by brave men. “That change seemed at first almost like a nuance,” says Janice Aria, who has worked with elephants and bears during a long career with Ringling. “But I saw that really had an amazing trickle-down effect into the way all of us approached this. You know, wait a minute, maybe it isn’t always the loudest voice, it isn’t the strongest person. It’s the person that can most intuitively connect with these animals that’s going to get the most consistent result from them.” Since the 1970s, Aria has watched elephant handling go from an all-male community with a cowboy attitude to women making up about half of Ringling’s handlers today, including the top two people in charge of animal stewardship: Aria, the director, and her deputy. The way Aria sees it, “Women have an inherent nurturing that many guys don’t have, and I think elephants respond really well to that.”

During those 40-plus years, training and handling methods grew steadily more professional and humane. “We used to manage elephants with stimuli that taught them to move away from things,” says Brandie Smith, the National Zoo’s associate director of animal care. “Now we use operant and positive conditioning to teach them to move toward things. That’s now the accepted standard for shaping behavior during training.” At the same time, advances in video technology and the Internet gave bad treatment, whether individual or systemic, a bigger audience than it ever had before, and the main focus of that attention was the bull hook.

Protesters during the elephants' last show with the circus in May in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

By 2015, the Feld family, which owns Ringling, had spent years confronting more and more bull hook bans. More than 60 jurisdictions banned their use, including cities from Los Angeles to Richmond. Feld Entertainment was battling animal rights organizations in court even as the company was tracking a steady shift in consumer attitudes. After undercover video surfaced in 2009 of Ringling handlers whacking and hooking elephants backstage, it didn’t matter that Ringling said it had made changes to its personnel and handling practices. The public mood was evolving.

It wasn’t just elephants. In 2013, the hottest documentary at the Sundance Film Festival was “Blackfish,” which argued that captivity was inherently cruel for a creature as intelligent as a killer whale. Last year SeaWorld announced the end of its signature killer whale shows.

By then, Ringling had already done the same for its elephant performances. “We said, we’re devoting so much time to this, it’s a distraction and we’re in the entertainment business,” explains Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive of Feld Entertainment. “We’re 146 years old. We’re older than Coca-Cola. We’re older than baseball. How have we survived? By embracing change and doing new things and understanding new ways to operate.”

The Felds decided their elephants would perform for the last time on Sunday, May 1, 2016 — the Red Unit in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the Blue Unit in Providence, R.I. On my way up to Pennsylvania, I stopped over at my cousin’s outside Philadelphia. His kids, it turned out, had never been to a circus. “Because it’s bad for the wild animals, right?” my cousin prompted. The kids nodded. By then I’d been following the Red Unit elephants for weeks. By then I knew it was a little more complicated than that.

Note: The elephants make their way from the animal compound to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for one of their last performances. Mable wows kids during a circus preshow in Virginia. The elephants make a grand entrance at the start of the show in Baltimore.

The Red Unit train pulled into Wilkes-Barre the last week in April. Since the District, it’d been to Fairfax, Va., and Charleston, W.Va. In each city the routine was the same: a couple of “dark days” for travel and rest, then two shows a day, occasionally three, each with a preshow. The animals and handlers also did public relations events: visits with children fighting cancer, a training demo for congressional staffers, television interviews, Animal Open Houses.

When the gates opened for the open house that final weekend, Sonia Foster was one of the first inside. Earlier that morning she’d driven 2 1/2 hours up from York, Pa., to the animal compound in the parking lot of Mohegan Sun Arena. Tomorrow was the elephants’ last show, but Foster didn’t just want to see the show; she wanted to see the elephants up close at the open house. Back when she was growing up in California, she went to the circus every year to see the elephants. And when the car dealership would offer elephant rides during big sales promotions, she’d go ride them.

“I hate that PETA’s getting rid of the circus elephants,” Foster said to the family with an awestruck child next to her at the paddock. She had already taken her grandchildren to an earlier show. When I asked why she liked elephants so much, she didn’t really have an answer. Maybe it’s like the difference between looking at pictures of trees and taking a walk in a forest. Like all animals, we experience the world through our senses, some of them subconscious. When all our senses are engaged, we learn and feel on a level beyond words.

Elephants learn without words. So it’s impossible to know for sure what they’re learning from their close contact with us. But a wild-born elephant like Asia may have suffered the typical miseries of capture and breaking, losing her family followed by days of beatings without food or water. She may have endured old-school circus training techniques. If so, she surely hasn’t forgotten any of it, nor that humans were responsible. Studies of elephant behavior and brains, with their bigger pyramidal neurons built for more connections than ours, have proved it really is true that elephants never forget. Yet Asia seemed as drawn to humans as they were to her.

Psychologist G.A. Bradshaw, author of “Elephants on the Edge,” describes how elephants have demonstrated they’re capable of distinguishing between humans who hurt them and humans who don’t. In Africa, young elephants who witnessed the slaughter of their families by one group of humans were rescued by other humans. Later, out in the bush, those still-wild elephants protected their human rescuers from dangers that included their fellow wild elephants.

In this country, animal rights activists and circus people have been demonizing each other in a long-running war of protests and legal battles over the fate of America’s performing elephants. Meanwhile, the ones who’ve set the best example of forgiveness might just be the elephants.

Ryan Henning, an elephant handler, trainer and Deputy Animal Supervisor, with the elephants in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., as they performed their last show.

From across the country, circus family and animal rights activists were making the same pilgrimage as Sonia Foster to say goodbye. The activists, signs in hand, reunited in front of the arena for a final anti-performing-elephant protest. Out back, each time the elephants were led from their parking lot paddock to the arena’s backstage entrance to await their cue, old handlers, dancers and former clowns hugged and slapped backs and posed for elephant photo ops. The music director talked about how Asia had reacted to his wife, a dancer who’d left the road five years ago to raise their children. She used to ride Asia in the show. When she came to West Virginia to say goodbye, Asia pulled her old rider’s hand to her mouth with her trunk, asking for a tongue scratch.

The two younger elephants, April and Mable, shuffled restlessly. Their trunks reached out to their three elders, touching faces and mouths. In the wild, female elephants live their whole lives in tight-knit family units. Captive-born elephants have the same instincts. Asia, Tonka and Luna were unrelated and had never had calves of their own, but they’d been helping to raise Mable and April since those two joined them on the road. The youngest, April, was the special charge of Asia, the oldest. They traveled in the same rail car, passed their days in the same paddock.

Before each show that final weekend there was the usual preshow, when the audience crowded onto the arena floor with the performers and animals, a clamor of laughter and shouts and thumping dance music. Asia and Mable would leave the others and go inside to the portal. When the curtains opened, Mable would trot out with a crew of handlers dressed in backstage black. Cries of amazement and camera flashes always followed her as she circled past the wall of faces that pressed in around the ring.

As part of the elephant act pre-show, Mable paints a picture at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore.

While Mable used her trunk to play musical instruments, paint a picture and practice sports, Asia stood by herself next to the open red curtains, bathed in red light. So long as Asia was nearby, Mable had the confidence to handle the preshow solo act and Asia got a 10-minute respite from April. Sometimes Asia would use her child-free minutes to take a nap. Sometimes she’d snake her trunk into the bandstand, looking for the music director and his pocketful of peanut M&M’s.

The black-clad handlers whisked props in and out through the portal, passing between Asia and a waiting clown. Lindsey Merryfield wore a red nose, a painted-on smile and a short retro dress that, along with her blond ’do, made her look like June Cleaver in a funhouse mirror. Though only 26, Merryfield was always the maternal one, the friend who made sure everyone in her circle was okay and had what they needed. She gave an impression of soft curves, but that was deceptive. Clowning was a physical art; she’d dropped 65 pounds when she joined Ringling’s Clown Alley and ran arena stairs to stay in shape. Drained after performing, she’d sit and watch the elephants in their paddock. She called them the girls.

Out in the ring, Mable scooped up a bowling ball and rolled it toward a pin set. Any pins left standing she sent flying with a kick. It always got a laugh. After Mable had batted some baseballs, Merryfield marched out in her bulbous clown shoes carrying a basketball, still managing to look girlie. She held it up with ladylike hands so Mable could curl her graceful trunk around it, glide to the hoop and drop it through. Merryfield pointed at her two-handed like, You go, girl!, and exited the ring.

She liked to watch them in their paddock because it was peaceful: the girls running their trunks over one another, or playing with the sand or a monster truck tire as if it were a Frisbee. Asia was her favorite.

Backstage again, Merryfield readied beach balls for Mable’s last trick and gazed up at Asia, more than 50 times as big as she was, nearly twice as old. In the portal’s red glow, the elephant was easing the burden of her 250-pound trunk by resting the end on the floor, the tip curled like an upside down shepherd’s crook. Merryfield’s red-circled cheeks were wet with tears. She was happy for Asia, for the quieter life that awaited her, and sad for herself. This was the last day that she would look up at Asia and be reminded of her place in this world.

You are so beautiful, she thought, and I am so small.

Clowns, including Lindsey Merryfield in a blue dress, wait for the curtain to open so they can applaud the elephants at the end of their act.

In a spartan RV parked by the elephant paddock, Ryan Henning shrugged into his black tuxedo jacket. The last few nights he’d been lying awake. His routine would no longer be dictated by the elephants’ daily needs: 200 pounds each of hay, fruit, vegetables and grains; 50 gallons of water; shovels and 55-gallon drums to keep ahead of the resulting mountains of manure and lakes of urine. No more foot care, baths and mounds of sand for naps in asphalt parking lots. No more flirty swishes of Asia’s tail against his head in a bid for attention or feeling her forehead vibrate with the rumble of her affectionate purr.

Outside the backstage area before the start of the elephants’ second-to-last show, Henning tucked his bull hook under his arm. With his jacket open, no tie, his close-cropped hair and rimless specs, he looked like a hip young professor. Five minutes before the show he finally put on his bow tie and buttoned his jacket. Some people crave the spotlight. Henning wasn’t going to miss it. But educating audiences about elephants — that he was going to miss.

He stood before the portal with Asia. Her tail swayed, relaxed. Above his head, a red-white-and-blue-spangled young woman perched astride Asia’s shoulders. Henning first sat on an elephant when he was 4. He grew up in Baraboo, Wis., where his uncle was the director of Circus World, a theme park. Henning dreamed of running away to join the real circus. At 19 he finally did. He was 31 now, assistant elephant manager and assistant animal superintendent for Ringling’s Red Unit. He and Asia had been standing together for TV news cameras in town after town, a human-elephant spokesteam: “It’s the end of an era, it’s bittersweet, but at the end of the day it’s about ensuring that these beautiful divas will be around for many generations,” while Asia’s industrious trunk popped the hunks of bread he offered into her smile-shaped mouth.

Henning has a quiet moment with an elephant in the makeshift paddock in Fairfax, Va., before a show.

When people asked, Henning would tell them he was excited about the changes to come. But as he leaned on his bull hook like it was a cane and waited for the show to begin, his other hand reached for the underside of Asia’s muscular trunk. All at once, he wrapped his arm around it, leaning against it to kiss her soft upper nose the way a father play-smooches a child. Her trunk curled upward to sniff his face, its fingertip dainty enough to pick a Skittle out of his hand, her whole trunk strong enough to pick up a car and drop it on him.

When the portal curtains opened and the ringmaster began to belt “The Star-Spangled Banner,” they walked out into the spotlight for the show’s made-in-America opening moment: a man from Wisconsin striding briskly alongside an elephant from Asia ridden by a woman from Mongolia carrying a large, flowing American flag. The routine was simple. Once around the arena, stop, raise trunk and right foot in a kind of salute to the land of the free and the home of the brave. It’s hard to say if Asia was enjoying herself, but the audience was cheering wildly.

Is it inherently wrong to make elephants entertain us? Does it make a difference if, unlike Asia, they were born in captivity, so long as we work to give them a happy, healthy life? When elephants’ basic needs are met, when they grow excited in anticipation of something good and interact peacefully with those around them, that looks like something that could be called happiness. Watching Asia and her traveling sisters week after week, that was what I saw.

Thick-ridged clouds hung overhead as the elephants ambled away from the arena after their final eight-minute performance. It was early evening. They were loaded into three tractor-trailers and set off, convoying south on Interstate 81. The trucks slowly twisted their way up the spine of the Appalachians with their yellow hazards flashing. By the time I overtook them on my way home to Washington, heavy fog had enveloped them. Everyone said it was a good thing the elephants were transitioning off the shows. But were they really going to something better?

Clown Julia Bothun comforts Bernadette Mustee, an elephant department employee, as they watch the elephants being readied for the trip to their new home in Florida.

They were headed for Florida, the place where Mable and April were born, Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation. Traveling and performing with a circus was undeniably hard, but it was also a physically and mentally stimulating life. I thought back to that moment in the elephant act when they were all balanced with their feet bunched together atop round bull tubs while they bobbed their heads and kicked their legs to music; as always, Mable had delivered the most enthusiastic kicks. I couldn’t help wondering if she wasn’t going to miss the spotlight. April might not have been at it long enough to miss it. Asia seemed ready to slow down; Tonka, too, who moved more stiffly than the others. Luna would be happy wherever Tonka was.

Feld Entertainment was a high-profile, deep-pocketed organization that could spend $65,000 per year on each elephant, including food, traveling veterinarians and trained handlers. At the same time, about a dozen smaller American circuses would still be on the road with elephants in their shows. And they’d be doing it with many fewer resources. Those were the circus elephants I worried for.

“Elephants are elephants; they are their own creature. Their perspective is not the same as ours. We can’t assume that because something bothers us it must bother them.” Tony Barthel, curator for elephants at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo

No sign announces Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation. It’s nestled along a country road behind a fence and a guard shack. Out of sight beyond the trees, a sandy single-track lane leads past a squat prefab building just big enough for a few offices, a meeting room and a small lab. Researchers at the center study the Ringling elephants’ activity levels and social interactions. They’re exploring how to diversify a shrinking gene pool to avoid inbreeding. They’re supporting research into herpes, which kills elephants similarly to the way Ebola kills humans, and tuberculosis. Both diseases are found in wild populations, too. Even in this out-of-the-way place, the fate of America’s Asian elephants isn’t far removed from their species’ struggle for survival on the other side of the world.

The wholesale slaughter of the roughly half-million remaining African elephants for their ivory tusks has grabbed headlines, but the critically endangered Asians are actually in bigger trouble. Poaching is a problem, and so is the continued practice of capturing young wild elephants for work in captivity. But the biggest problems are deforestation and competition from growing human populations on a poor and crowded continent, according to the World Wildlife Fund and other nonprofit groups. The WWF’s efforts to find solutions range from alternative livelihoods to electric fencing to protect villages and crops. For its part, Ringling’s center supports wild elephant conservation efforts in Sri Lanka and hosts Sri Lankan graduate students at the Florida facility. All this because experts estimate only 35,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants are left in the wild, with perhaps 15,000 more in captivity. If they continue dying at the rate they are now, Asia’s wild elephants may be gone in a decade.

One thing that’s not killing elephants is cancer. While humans have two copies of a cancer-fighting gene, elephants have 40. The Schiffman Lab at Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah is researching how those extra copies cure cancer in elephants in hopes of creating a drug that will do the same for humans. Their research requires a steady supply of elephant blood, about 10 drops’ worth at a time. CEC vet techs draw blood weekly as part of the elephants’ required care, so the Feld family has offered to donate the needed samples, especially since it can be done without subjecting the elephants to extra needle sticks.

Outside the Florida lab lie 50 acres of barns, paddocks, fenced pastures and open fields and forest, next to an additional 150 acres of protected wetlands. The five Red Unit elephants and the six from the Blue Unit are joining 27 already living at the center full- time, making Ringling’s herd of Asians the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Twenty-six calves have been born at the center since it was established in 1995, with another due in November. It’s a peaceful place. You can hear birds and grasshoppers and the rhythmic ripping of grass as elephants graze. Still, the conflict over who gets to say what’s best for America’s circus elephants has followed them even here.

Those who take care of captive elephants in circuses, zoos and sanctuaries in the United States and abroad don’t all agree on what makes a good home for them. And so far there isn’t much scientific data. The animal rights organizations that advocate for an end to all elephant performances had hoped Ringling’s herd would go to either of two accredited U.S. sanctuaries; unlike the CEC, the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries is opposed to captive-breeding animals that will not be released into the wild. The sanctuaries in California and Tennessee allow their small herds of aging elephants to roam semi-wild through hundreds of acres of natural habitats. The elephants choose for themselves when or whether to go into a barn.

At the Center for Elephant Conservation, the Ringling elephants are pastured during the day with longtime elephant friends they’ve shown a preference for. But the pastures are a fraction of the size of the sanctuaries’ forests and fields. At night, the elephants are ushered into barns where they’re tethered to prevent them from getting into fights. (Not all elephants get along like Asia.) Tethering also keeps them from taking one another’s food, since the barn is where they’re fed their main meals morning and evening; tighter control makes it easier to spot changes in each individual’s intake that can be early warning signs of a health problem. While tethered, they can lie down but can’t take more than a few steps in any direction. The barns have concrete floors because they’re easy to clean.

Which, if any, of these differences between sites should concern us? “People have a tendency to view elephants as people in big elephant suits,” says the National Zoo’s Tony Barthel. “Although to assume they don’t have traits we all share is ridiculous — emotional response is one of those things. But elephants are elephants; they are their own creature. Their perspective is not the same as ours. We can’t assume that because something bothers us it must bother them.”

Indeed, a recent study of zoo elephants published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE found no link between the size of an exhibit and three key indicators of poor elephant welfare. Instead, healthier outcomes were associated with being part of a big, diverse and stable social group and having a variety of feeding methods and enrichment activities.

Because of the CEC’s breeding program, the Ringling herd is large and socially complex, with a normal mix of ages: The oldest elephant is more than 70 years old, the youngest is 3. They’ve all grown up or grown old together here. While the pastures and paddocks are small, their handlers take them on regular walks around the 50-acre facility, and an agility course is planned to keep the former circus elephants in shape.

As we wait for the science to catch up, does the departure of the Ringling elephants from the public arena reveal that we’re finally learning how to be a wiser, more humane society? Or does it just expose our willingness to settle for easy answers in response to the loudest voices? The answer may well be both.


Handler David Polk bathes Mysore, a 70-year-old elephant, at Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. Asia was one of several retired elephants sprayed down for a bath. Former Ringling Bros. circus elephants like April have all the time in the world to play in the sand at the 200-acre habitat.

On a morning in early June, it’s bath time in the shade of an open-air pavilion. Within sight of other members of the herd, Asia and Mable suck up water from buckets and spray themselves. April toys with a hose. Not far away, Tonka and Luna share a paddock where the two besties dug themselves a wallow after a rainstorm and frolicked in the mud. Until a month ago, Mable and April were usually placed with an adult elephant between them, like children parked on either side of a parent in church. Here at the CEC, they spend all their days and nights with Asia.

Later, I spot Asia and April napping beside each other in the shade while Mable grazes nearby in the sunshine, keeping watch. As I gaze at them through the thin strands of electric fencing that outline their pasture, I understand why Lindsey Merryfield found it soul­restoring to sit beside their paddock when they weren’t performing. But there are no plans to invite the public to watch the Ringling elephants adjust to their new lives. The accredited sanctuaries in Tennessee and California aren’t open to the public, either.

The CEC facility wasn’t designed with crowds in mind. No thought was given to accommodating anything more than elephants in its tall grass or a few tractors and electric carts on its one-lane dirt road. Operations manager Pat Harned is training younger elephants like 3-year-old Piper, but only to associate certain words with lifting her feet for inspection and picking up things with her trunk. He’s not training her to climb up on a bull tub and dance.

Still, every activist I spoke with voiced suspicions such as those of a protester outside EagleBank Arena in Fairfax who worried, “They might be used for elephant rides.” Ringling representatives themselves seemed to be wrestling with where to go from here, including Kenneth Feld, who wondered aloud: “That’s what our next thing is. How can more people appreciate these elephants now that they’re not on the circus? And how can they go and see them someplace and be close to them and understand them?”

So far, the only public access is when Janice Aria, the animal stewardship director, Skypes with schoolchildren. She sets up her laptop in front of the pasture where Asia, April and Mable spend their days. Two other adult elephants are brought from their pasture to stand beside Aria while she talks with the children. In the background, Mable and April come to the fence to watch.

Kristin Henderson is a longtime contributor to the magazine and the author of “While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront.” She lives in Washington, D.C.