For elephants that miss the circus cut, Florida becomes home

POLK CITY

Angelica, the pregnant one, is grabbing the lock of her paddock with her trunk. Fortysomething Sid, the diva, is hanging with Aree, the young one who can't concentrate. A few pens over, Mala is ready to make babies, so she's been put together with Romeo.

These are the Asian elephants who were left behind. The ones who didn't make the Greatest Show on Earth, which concludes its stop in Tampa today.

Thirty-three of Ringling Bros.' Asian elephants live here, off a two-lane road in Polk County, at the Center for Elephant Conservation. The oldest is 66. The youngest, 9 months.

At the circus inside the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa this weekend, the chosen ones will parade trunk-to-tail amidst the splash of lights, the loud music, the glittery costumed performers.

But here, in the winter-drab fields of middle Florida, are those that didn't quite make it — they're too old, too young or too distracted. They are the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere.

• • •

About 15 years ago, Feld Entertainment, owner of Ringling Bros., bought 200 acres west of Orlando, 4 miles from Interstate 4. It carved the grasslands into shady outdoor paddocks and built concrete barns with pens.

Today, the facility has become a place where older elephants with arthritic feet retire, where fertile elephants breed, where not-suitable-for-the-circus elephants live out their lives.

The Center for Elephant Conservation is not open to the public. In fact, anyone passing the facility on the road would never know it's there.

It has also been the subject of lawsuits by animal rights groups, which claim Ringling abuses its elephants. Some of the elephants at the center have been the subject of these cruelty complaints. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that Ringling was using arthritic elephants in its shows.

Janice Aria, director of animal stewardship training at the Center for Elephant Conservation, calls the accusations blatant misinformation.

She points out that researchers come from all over the world to study these elephants, to learn more about what ails them, to figure out how to keep them going.

Asian elephants are endangered. About 40,000 remain in the wilds of Asia, where their tusks are prized and their habitat is threatened.

The last elephant imported from Asia was in 1999. The aging stock in the United States has declined — down from 340 in 1990 to 269 today. This is despite more than 117 births in the same time frame, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation now boasts 23 births. It is a large number, all things considered.

Elephant breeding is complicated, time consuming and largely unsuccessful. At times the center resembles a bustling infertility clinic. There are weekly blood tests on the child-bearing females to determine if they are ready. Once they are, they are matched with appropriate males. Sometimes artificial insemination is used. If a pregnancy does take place, there's a long wait ahead: female elephants carry their babies for 22 months.

Once they are born, there is the threat of herpes, which kills many young elephants. The center has two who have survived it.

One is a miracle baby of sorts. Named Barack after the president, the elephant is a product of artificial insemination.

• • •

On a recent day, Trudy Williams, manager of animal stewardship, gave a golf cart tour of the property along a winding dirt road that skirted the elephant yards and structures.

Elephants are social animals, but here they were separated so they couldn't hurt each other. Compatible elephants hung out in small groups: friends, lovers, mothers with babies.

The males stood mostly inside smaller cages made of pipes 10 feet tall and 5 inches in diameter, placed far enough apart for a human to slip through. The females lounged outside in pairs or by themselves, many surrounded by skinny hot wire.

Williams pointed out 4-year-old Mable, who's so far too high strung for the show. And Sid and Aree, who love to hang out together and are not suitable for the touring circus because of their dispositions. And Karen, who was touring recently but needed a break.

There was Charlie, standing tall in his cage inside a concrete building, swaying back and forth on either foot, the king of the place if there was one. He's sired 13 of the babies here, mostly because he's docile with the females and doesn't hurt them.

In the wild, a single male elephant defends the herd. If there is a challenger, the loser is banished to the outskirts. Here at the Center for Elephant Conservation, the nine males have dominion only over their own pens.

"We're not willing to throw them all together and let them hash that all out," Williams said. "There are a couple males that are very, very aggressive with the females … to us, they're in our care and it's our responsibility to make sure they're not hurt."

This is where Ringling will find its next generation of performers. Measuring the worth of the babies begins almost immediately as they are taught to balance on a ball, step up on an upside-down tub. Do they have the attention span? Can they focus on a handler amidst distractions?

A month ago, Sundara, the 2-year-old, joined one of the touring units.

"Every one is a crapshoot," says Aria, the director of animal stewardship. "We don't know if they will end up performing. If they don't show the disposition for it, they stay here."

• • •

Over at a small yard next to a muddy barn, Ringling's next prospect, 9-month-old April, rolled around next to her mother, Alana.

Williams rolled her a 70-pound plastic ball. "There," Williams said, "go for it."

She watched the baby run after the ball.

"She's showing all the qualities of a showman," she said.

The 900-pound elephant nudged the ball around in a circle with her shoulder. Then she climbed on top of it, balancing precariously and falling on the ground. Then April pulled herself up and climbed on the ball again.

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

For elephants that miss the circus cut, Florida becomes home 01/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 12:43pm]

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