Treasured icons of the circus family, the last of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s performing elephants are retired but not forgotten at the Conservation Center for Elephants
Story by Marcy Chapman, Photos by David LaBelle
Loud trumpet blasts reverberate across 200 acres set among the orange groves and cattle ranches of central Florida. Mabel, April and Asia—retired showgirls who performed together in the circus for many years—huddle together in the grassy yard, tails and trunks swaying, as if in an animated gossip session.
Nearby, others in the bulky herd frolick like schoolchildren at recess, leaning against great piles of dirt positioned to assist in resting or lying down. Some push large, colorful rubber balls around with their trunks and bump against the treads of giant swinging tires—ingenious elephant toys recycled from monster trucks used in other traveling shows by circus owner Feld Entertainment.
Trees and shelters offer respite from the sun in the seemingly unending farmland that gives the elephants space to roam.
Welcome to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Conservation Center for Elephants in the Green Swamp region between Tampa and Orlando.
Created in 1995, the reserve is home to the largest sustainable elephant population in the Western Hemisphere. It is the permanent retirement home for Feld Entertainment’s Asian elephant performers—the last of which was retired in May—and 26 calves born at the center since the breeding program began in 1992.
Elephant Love at First Sight
Tending to every need of the cherished members of the Ringling Bros. family is Janice Aria and a team of professionals.
As director of stewardship and animal husbandry, Janice is responsible for designing and implementing a standardized curriculum of best practices. She works closely with trainers and their animals to maintain high standards of care and compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. It is a mission she embraces.
Janice’s passion for elephants was born from life experiences that took her from a career in education to an introduction to elephants at clown college, a long stint with elephants in the circus, and back to being an educator and advocate for elephants.
“I was at NYU in my senior year when I left to enroll at clown college—an educator looking for a skill set to work with troubled kids,” Janice says. “At NYU I had utilized theater to keep them engaged in school. I certainly had no aspiration to be a woman clown, or to begin a lifelong career devoted to animal welfare.”
Janice remembers her first week at Ringling Bros. Clown College in 1972.
“I watched as a group of elephants—just trucked into their winter quarters in Venice, Florida—were being unloaded,” she says. “It was absolute, instant love.”
Her first week at clown college, Janice was put on an elephant.
“I was accustomed to large animals,” she says. “I had ridden horses my whole life. But being face to face with the largest land mammal was both awe-inspiring and humbling. I had never felt so free and joyful—and I thought, ‘What a way to present yourself to the world every day.’”
Janice says she discovered much about herself at clown college. It turned her life in an unexpected direction.
“The experience of finding the clown within you is a process,” Janice says. “As you discover it, you can exaggerate. I had never looked into myself with that depth. Searching for your authentic self is amazingly gratifying.”
At the end of the course, Janice’s mother came to visit.
“I told her I had been offered a work contract with the circus,” Janice says. “To my shock, she responded, ‘If you pass up this opportunity to perform with the Greatest Show on Earth, you will always be sorry.’ And so I held my nose and trusted my cape and jumped in.”
Along with her husband and brother, Janice trained, presented and toured with the Ringling Bros. Circus for more than two decades. She was part of a bear act and a dog act. Ultimately, she was a featured performer in the elephant act.
“I learned that elephants are fascinating individuals and that being among them is much like being with a classroom of kids,” Janice says. “Now, 45 years later, here I am with a lifelong career devoted to these animals and their welfare.”
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in special education and a master’s in adult education and human resources development from the University of South Florida, Janice is again teaching, sharing information worldwide about the need to care for the beloved and critically endangered Asian elephants.
A Mission of Mammoth Proportions
Ensuring the survival of the majestic Asian elephant—which is the mantra of the conservation center—is “a huge and rewarding project,” says Janice.
“The whole world seems upside down in the awareness of our responsibility to all the species with whom we share the planet,” she says. “If we don’t breed these guys enthusiastically, we will not have an Asian elephant by 2050. They are on a bobsled to extinction. Fifty-five million years of evolution is on the line.”
Husbandry programs such as the one at the conservation center are vital to their survival.
“The truth of the matter is elephants—especially Asian elephants—are not going to be around in the future without people’s help and without being in responsible, man-managed facilities,” says Ringling elephant handler Erik Montgomery. “People need to know how to live with elephants. As long as we can enrich their lives and have a relationship with them, and enrich our own lives in the process, I think that is the way to go.”
With their habitat increasingly threatened, the future of Asian elephants looks bleak. There are fewer than 280 of them in the United States and less than 35,000 worldwide.
The American circus community is leading the parade in facing this global crisis, urging people to get behind conservation challenges and to find solutions, advocating at home and in elephant range countries such as Sri Lanka.
Projects at the center—staffed by trainers, veterinarians and scientists—include studying the elephants, offering training classes, boosting their breeding program and aiding strategies abroad in native habitats.
Within this sheltered environment, the herd of males and females, ages 4 to 71 years, follows its preferred daily routine: up early for a bath, tough hides groomed with a wire brush, pedicures and breakfast. By noon, the elephants are out in the fields, undisturbed, to play, graze and sleep.
Feeding them is a big undertaking. An elephant chows down on up to 150 pounds of food a day, including a favored bedtime snack of numerous loaves of bread. Their diet includes hay, vegetables, fruits and a variety of grasses. The annual cost of feeding and maintaining one elephant is $65,000.
One of the advantages for elephants living in a conservation facility is the availability of support for unique needs, such as the challenge of feeding 71-year-old retired performer Mysore.
She lost one of her four giant molars—part of the sixth and final generation of her teeth. With this last set chipping away, her caregivers grind bales of hay so she can eat.
Accommodations for these multi-ton residents are determined by age, gender and, most importantly, compatibility.
Highly intelligent animals, elephants have an emotional complexity that results in varied and distinct personalities. Their social world is of great importance to them.
The mammoth males—the median weight of an elephant ranges from 9,000 to 10,000 pounds—can be standoffish. They are bunked separately in large paddocks, rotating in and out of spacious barns designed to keep them secure and protected.
Males in musth, eager to mate, exhibit great strength and willfulness. In the wild, they fight to the death for a breeding right.
Females and babies have private pens, too. Being an elephant mom is a big commitment. The gestation period is 22 months. The newborn can weigh up to 250 pounds and nurses for two years.
In this complex where loud trumpet blasts reverberate across fields and water glitters in the sun as it sprays from elephant trunks, Janice and members of the conservation team work with determination, insistent that “the show must go on.”
“I credit my life in the circus for the great sense of satisfaction I experience in life,” Janice says. “It has made all the difference, offering me cushion, substance and purpose. Feld Entertainment is my hometown and my family. My work here is not a job, but a treasured lifestyle.”