Freed former circus elephants begin new life in wildlife sanctuary

Freed former circus elephants begin new life in wildlife sanctuary

For over a century, elephants were a staple of traveling circuses, most famously the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

But what was billed as the “Greatest Show On Earth” wasn’t very great for the animals kept in captivity.

For decades, the famous circus show came under fire from animal rights groups like ASPCA and PETA over their treatment of elephants, who argued that the use of these rare animals for entertainment was inhumane, and the elephants were subjected to poor conditions and mistreatment on the road.

Ringling Bros. Asian elephants enjoy a Thanksgiving Brunch engineered by children from the Greater Tampa YMCA.

Posted by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey on Thursday, November 22, 2012
Dan Holm /

Finally in 2015, the Ringling Bros. ended the use of elephants in their shows, retiring the former circus animals to an elephant sanctuary.

And this week, 12 former circus elephants arrived in their new home — and it’s clear they’re happy to finally be free from the road.

The elephants, aged between 8 and 38 years old, had all previously traveled with the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey show, but will now spend their lives at the White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida.

A far cry from the life of cages and tricks, these elephants will be free to roam the conservation, which has been built to replicate their native habitat as closely as possible.

“We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore,” said Mark and Kimbra Walter, the philanthropists who funded the conservation.

“We are working to protect wild animals in their native habitats. But for these elephants that can’t be released, we are pleased to give them a place where they can live comfortably for the rest of their lives.”

Angelica and Kelly Ann enjoy a moment.

Posted by White Oak Conservation on Monday, May 3, 2021

Conservationist Michelle Gadd, who is overseeing the project, was thrilled to see the former performing elephants in their new home.

“A lot of kids have this dream of running away and joining the circus,” she told CBS News. “Well, I was that kid who wanted to run away and let all the animals out of the circus.”

“They don’t need to be ridden or trained or do tricks or travel the world. Just let them be where they are and there’s nothing more beautiful than that.”

As part of the plan to phase out elephants from the circus, former Ringling Bros. elephants were moved to the Center of Elephant Conservation in Florida, which their company sponsored. But according to CBS, the nonprofit Walter Conservation bought the elephants last Fall to move them to a bigger sanctuary.

To get to their new home, they were transported 200 miles in customized trucks, accompanied by vets and animal care specialists, White Oak explained.

And once they arrived, they quickly began socializing.

“Watching the elephants go out into the habitat was an incredible moment,” said Nick Newby, leader of the sanctuary’s team.

“I was so happy to see them come out together and reassure and comfort each other, just like wild elephants do, and then head out to explore their new environment. Seeing the elephants swim for the first time was amazing.”

“They seem to have sorted out a hierarchy amongst themselves,” Gadd told CBS News.

“They regrouped right outside the fence and again reassured each other. Rumbled, touched each other, put their trunks in one another’s mouths.”

Meanwhile, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has since closed for good. They performed their final show on May 21, 2017.

We’re so glad these elephants were freed from the circus and now have a chance to live free, in a natural environment with others of their kind.

Share this great news if you love elephants!