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Ringling circus elephants' visit was their last in Tampa; owners will retire them in May

Three elephants, Karen, Kelly Anne and Bonnie, stand in a line after being unloaded from a truck Jan. 5 in Tampa as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus prepares for a show at Amalie Arena. [ZACK WITTMAN   |   Times]
Three elephants, Karen, Kelly Anne and Bonnie, stand in a line after being unloaded from a truck Jan. 5 in Tampa as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus prepares for a show at Amalie Arena. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Jan. 12, 2016

When Keara Giba brought her son to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus last week, she had no idea the significance.

It was the last time anyone would see Ringling's elephants perform in Tampa. Monday, as the circus left Amalie Arena, Ringling announced plans to end its elephants act a year and a half early, retiring all touring elephants in May. Previously, circus representatives had said the elephants would be phased out by 2018.

"That's such a shame," Giba said. "My 3-year-old just loved the elephants."

The circus' parent company, Feld Entertainment in Ellenton, will move the iconic elephants to the company's Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, which currently cares for 29 retired elephants.

The company originally thought it would take three years to lay the groundwork to add the 11 elephants on tour to the herd, said Janice Aria, director of animal stewardship for the 200-acre center in Polk City.

"We are talking 11 more giant poop machines coming here," Aria said Monday. "We are on the edge of the protected Green Swamp."

Organizers realized they didn't need to build as many physical structures as they first estimated, Aria said. They just needed to make plans for the environmental impact of waste, water, food — some 150 pounds of hay per day for each elephant, plus apples, carrots, sweet corn and bananas. Fun fact, said Aria: "Not all elephants like peanuts."

Elephant acts have been showcased by Ringling for more than a century and have often been featured on posters. But animal welfare activists have long alleged that circuses have mistreated elephants.

In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from a number of animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle.

But the legal victory was not enough to keep the elephants in the show. Because so many cities and counties across the country have passed ordinances pertaining to the treatment or use of wild or exotic animals, it became difficult to organize the circus schedule, Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld told news outlets in 2015.

The elephants that were in the Tampa show, working in what the company calls the "Blue" unit, were loaded Monday on a train for Orlando, where the circus will perform at the Amway Center starting Thursday, said Feld spokeswoman Melinda Hartline.

The Blue unit's last show will be in Providence, R.I., in May, Hartline said, and the circus' "Red" unit will perform last in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. The performers will return to Florida to rehearse in Palmetto for the new elephant-free circus that will premiere in July.

Feld owns the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America, according to Alana Feld, Ringling's executive vice president and show producer. In addition to the elephants still touring and the 29 on the property now, there are two additional animals on breeding loans to zoos. It costs about $65,000 yearly to care for each elephant, she said.

The current herd fills five trash bins a week of manure, and that has to be hauled off to the local landfill. Elephant waste makes terrible fertilizer, Aria said. When the conservation center opened 20 years ago, the center offered the waste as a gift to local farmers, but they soon found it wasn't much use.

"This stuff doesn't break down."

Monday's news prompted the animal welfare organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to call on the circus to end all animal acts and promise to keep an eye on the elephants.

"PETA warns that because the circus has refused to retire these elephants to an accredited sanctuary, vigilance will be needed to determine how they are treated," PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said in a statement.

Giba, who lives in Sarasota, said she had never been to the circus before and was surprised that she and her friend "had a blast." But the big cats disturbed her.

"I don't know how they train them, but the way they would snarl and put their ears back when (the trainer) came near, it kind of distracted me and kind of bothered me," Giba, 24, said. "It wouldn't hurt my feelings to have them out of the circus."

Hartline said the lions and tigers, dogs, horses and even the performing pigs will remain in the show.

What the new circus will look like, she couldn't exactly say.

"It will be different," Hartline said. "It will be new and fresh, and we can't tell what it is yet because we are still developing it."

Meanwhile, the retired elephants at the Polk County conservation center will be part of cancer research. Research appears to show that elephants have extra copies of a gene that fights tumor cells. Dr. Joshua Schiffman, a pediatric cancer specialist at the University of Utah, is trying to find clues in the blood samples of Ringling elephants.

The Polk County conservation center currently has 18 people who work in the barns and four people who work in the training center, Aria said. This shift likely means the center's experts and conservationists will take on a much more prominent role in the public eye.

"I know this was a difficult decision, and there's a bittersweet element to it," said Aria, a 1972 graduate of the Ringling Clown College, and one of the first female clowns who got her start performing in the elephant acts.

There has been a lot of change in the 146-year history of the circus.

"This is exciting for all of us on the staff of our animal husbandry program," Aria said. "To think that we are going to help lead to the cure, or at the very least a therapy, for pediatric cancer. That's just amazing."

Iinformation from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at or (727) 893-8595. Follow @SharonKWn on Twitter.