After the circus

Ringling Bros. moves elephants to Florida for retirement, breeding, research
Published on August 17, 2016
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Dr. Dennis Schmitt moves an ultrasound wand across the dark skin of a pregnant elephant.

Sally shifts her weight and flaps her ears but stands in place. It’s June 1, and the 49-year-old will give birth in November if she carries her calf the full 22-month term.

From his stool on the barn’s concrete floor, Dr. Schmitt sees gray shapes grow and disappear on the laptop held next to him by Wendy Kiso, PhD. Movement appears in red and blue. The calf has a heartbeat.

Dr. Schmitt is the head veterinarian for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in southern Florida, a 200-acre retirement home and breeding center for the circus’s Asian elephants.

The facility housed 39 elephants as of early July, including 11 that gave the circus’s last elephant performances May 1 in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The company also has two elephants on loan to zoos in Fort Worth, Texas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, for breeding.

Three-quarters of the elephants are female. The mean age is 31.

Erik Montgomery shows how to examine elephants’ feet
Erik Montgomery, a handler at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation, stands next to Mysore while showing how conservation center staff examine elephants’ feet

Staff at the center are breeding Asian elephants to supply North American zoos and learning how to care for their own aging herd. The oldest is Mysore, a mottled 70-year-old with a slow amble, one crooked tooth, and a fondness for the soft bread given as treats.

Because of the training and trust of the elephants, Dr. Schmitt said, “We’re able to provide the best care for them as well as engage in some research projects occasionally.”

The care that’s given is really unprecedented, even for a zoo.

Dr. Dennis Schmitt, head veterinarian, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation

Ringling conducts its own research, but also allows outside research organizations access to the herd, with internal and external studies together covering subjects as varied as potential genetic causes for the low cancer incidence in Asian elephants and the use of pheromones to deter wild elephants from villages in their native countries. Dr. Kiso, director of research and conservation at the conservation center, works a room away from the tanks used to store semen from five bull elephants, part of what she hopes will be a growing collection.

“Because Asian elephants are endangered, this has huge implications for species conservation, not only to maintain our herd but also potentially around the world,” she said.

A bittersweet decision

The center is about halfway between Tampa and Orlando, off a county highway and beyond a nondescript guardhouse and gate, past where the gravel drive curves behind trees. The grounds host offices, barns, houses for residents who watch the elephants overnight, and patches of elephant grass, banana leaves, bamboo, willows, and wild grasses. Some offices are in a railroad car that had been a traveling school for circus children until 1993.

Two female elephants, Karen and Nicole, sway in the June sun near the posts and cables at the dusty edge of their paddock. Males are in stronger enclosures, from the fencelike horizontal metal bars in the enclosure for Barack, who was born a day before President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, to the 5-inch-diameter vertical bars holding Gunther.

Female elephants graze together on the grass of their paddocks. Males can see one another across the gaps between their enclosures.

Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communications for Ringling’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, said the circus retired the elephants because of the increasing difficulty of navigating local regulations such as Los Angeles’ ban on using bullhooks, or elephant guides. The circus traditionally used these tools to direct the elephants and could not conduct shows without them, according to Payne.

AVMA policy both describes the devices as consistent with practicing good animal welfare when used by trained individuals and condemns their use when intended to hurt elephants.

Dr. Schmitt examining Baby
Dr. Dennis Schmitt looks at a white spot on Baby’s cornea.

Since the May performance by Ringling Bros., Rhode Island lawmakers introduced and passed legislation that would prohibit use of bullhooks or similar tools to inflict pain as a method of controlling an elephant. Gov. Gina Raimondo had not acted on the bill at press time in early August.

Payne said the decision to retire the elephants was bittersweet, and the animals will remain part of Ringling’s family.

An endangered species

The total population of Asian elephants, wild and captive, was estimated at 50,000 as of July 2015, one-tenth the African elephant population, according to figures from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Dr. Kiso estimates roughly 280 Asian elephants live in North America, which Dr. Schmitt says would provide ample genetic diversity if all were able to reproduce. But they think only about 70 are able.

“The Asian elephant is just endangered, and our goal is to get more out there, females or males,” Dr. Kiso said.

The Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide distributed by the International Elephant Foundation states that an aggressive breeding effort is needed to sustain North American populations of Asian and African elephants.

“Due to the few elephants that are contributing to the current birth rate, the North American population faces a crisis,” the guide states. “Acquiring replacement elephants from range countries to supplement the North American population can be difficult.

“Therefore it is necessary to increase breeding efficiency within the current population.”

The primary difficulty is a federal prohibition on commercial elephant trade, under international treaty.

Dr. Kiso noted that female elephants have 22-month gestation periods and can require three to four years between calves. Twenty-six calves have been born at the center since 1992.

Dr. Schmitt, who is certified by the American College of Theriogenologists, estimates that, without more calves, the aging U.S. population of Asian elephants will decline to fewer than 100 in the next decade. Ringling is trying to maintain the current population.

That goal is anathema to Ed Stewart, president and co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, who opposes captive elephant breeding and operates a Northern California elephant sanctuary populated by elephants once owned by zoos, circuses, or private collectors. Preserving elephants should involve protecting native habitats by addressing economic sources of conflict with humans, not breeding for lives in captivity, he said.

Payne, of Feld Entertainment, said PAWS and other sanctuaries that lack breeding programs are managing their populations to extinction, whereas Feld Entertainment is preserving the genetics of its elephants while working in Sri Lanka to aid managed populations. Drs. Schmitt and Kiso each travel to the country several times a year for conservation work, which started with remodeling buildings and improving hygiene and has since turned toward conservation projects.

Stewart and Payne also disagree over whether some remaining free Asian elephant populations are truly wild, as Stewart contends, or are managed to provide care and reduce conflicts, as Payne contends. They agree that, in conflicts between humans and elephants, the elephants usually lose.

Mysore opens her mouth between bites of bread.

Retirement in Florida

After Sally’s ultrasound, Dr. Schmitt checks on another elephant in a nearby stall. He places one hand on the cheek of Baby, an elephant in her mid-50s, and looks through an ophthalmoscope at a white spot on her cornea. He is checking progress of a treatment regimen that included antibiotics and autogenous serum.

Any cost is covered by Feld Entertainment if it provides the elephants with reasonable quality of life, he said.

Barack, the 7-year-old male elephant, was conceived through artificial insemination, saved at birth through heart massage and artificial respiration through his trunk, hand-fed for his first month because he was late to begin nursing, and treated twice for herpesvirus infection, which can be fatal for elephants.

The center also closely monitors its elephants for tuberculosis, as latent infections can last decades.

The circus has four full-time veterinarians and three consulting veterinarians, and almost all elephants are examined by a veterinarian in a given week. They monitor reproductive status and disease risks through blood draws and trunk washes, for example, and other staff help monitor the elephants’ weight, attitude, and behavior.

Captive elephants are prone to foot infections, so staff at the center examine all the elephants’ feet daily, checking the cuticles, toenails, and pads.

Dr. Jackie Gai, director of veterinary services for PAWS, provides geriatric care to elephants at the California PAWS sanctuary. In her experience, circus elephants tend to have behaviors and health concerns similar to those seen in elephants at zoos, although she has noticed more repetitive stereotypic behaviors, such as swaying, head bobbing, or rocking back and forth, among former circus elephants.

She said arthritis is common among all captive elephants, particularly those older than 40, and it is a common reason for euthanasia, as are foot infections. She has been involved in necropsies that revealed joint lesions equivalent to those associated with excruciating pain in humans, she said.

Dr. Schmitt said by email that arthritis is overdiagnosed, with signs such as intermittent stiffness attributed to arthritis without thorough radiographic examination.

“I have seen a few cases at necropsy in elephants of arthritis where the cartilage was eroded on the joint surfaces,” he wrote. “However, most cases that are reported are from radiographs which may not be diagnostic because of the size of the elephant, the angle radiographs were obtained, and presence of overlying joints.”

He sees osteophytes on the edges of distal joints in older elephants, he said, but those usually do not interfere with movement.

Dr. Gai also said obesity and poor muscle tone are more common among captive elephants than their wild counterparts, noted that captive elephants tend to have more difficulty breeding, and said captive elephants have shorter lifespans than their wild counterparts when man-made causes of death are excluded. Those differences are in addition to social differences between captive herds and wild matriarchal herds, which pass down cultural knowledge on calf rearing and where to find resources in times of scarcity, she said.

Piper, a 3-year-old female elephant, shares an enclosure with 7-year-old Sundara (not shown).

In late spring, handlers and veterinarians at the Center for Elephant Conservation were observing the rapport among existing and new residents. Dr. Kiso said staff were studying behavior, exercise, and enrichment, which involves tracking the elephants’ time spent walking, foraging, and browsing, as well as interactions, assertiveness, and whether their behavior changes with the presence of herdmates or changes in their environment.

“Only one-third of our elephants have traveled, and it’s because we look at their personalities, we look at their predisposition,” she said.

Those that did well remained with the circus, some as late as their mid-50s, she said.

Because Asian elephants are endangered, this has huge implications for species conservation, not only to maintain our herd but also potentially around the world.

Wendy Kiso, PhD, director of research and conservation, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation

Asked whether the performing elephants have different long-term care needs, she said the needs are the same as nonperformers’ because the trained behaviors choreographed for the circus mimic natural behaviors: crossing logs, climbing hills, and throwing sand, the last of which Dr. Schmitt said can be used to train an elephant to bowl or dunk a basketball. Dr. Kiso also described Gunther’s self-taught ability to balance on four blue toy balls given for enrichment.

An area of one paddock was marked with yellow flags for a planned exercise area with obstacles, Dr. Schmitt said. Some of the enclosures already include 700-pound tires—which come from Feld Entertainment’s Monster Jam truck shows—and tire pieces attached to frames, which the elephants bounce and toss as toys.

Feld Entertainment spends a mean of $65,000 on each elephant annually, Payne said. Dr. Schmitt said, “The care that’s given is really unprecedented, even for a zoo.”

Much of that involves geriatric health care, ensuring quality of life for the elephants and ongoing learning as the elephants age. For those that live past their 50s, such as Mysore, that means chopping up their food after they lose their teeth.

For others, such as Sally, who is carrying her seventh calf, the challenges are more familiar.

Related JAVMA content:

Ringling Bros. will retire its elephants (April 15, 2015)