POLK CITY, Fla. — If you drove by it, you wouldn’t even know it’s there.
The Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation sits on 200 acres of land in rural central Florida, halfway between Orlando and Sarasota, off a nondescript country road. An armed security guard greets you at the entrance.
After a short drive down a gravel road, you get the sense this is a special place.
“You can walk around and you don’t hear anything,” said Kenneth Feld, who opened the center in 1995. “These elephants, they have these large feet and they travel silently through the fields. I think it’s very peaceful.”
Twenty-nine elephants currently live here, and 13 more will join the group by 2018, after Ringling Bros. decided this year to stop using elephants in its traveling circus.
‘Difficult’ family decision
“This was a decision that our family had discussed for quite some time,” said Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, the company that owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
The change comes after years of repeated criticism and lawsuits by animal rights groups. The ultimate decision to phase out the elephants, Feld said, is the result of the different laws regulating the use of the animals in each of the 115 cities the circus visits every year.
“You can’t operate any business, much less with animals, if you don’t have consistency from city to city,” Feld said. “It’s a definite expense to be in litigation and to be fighting legislation, and there is a saying and it’s been around for a long time: ‘You can’t fight city hall.’ And we found that to be the case in this situation.”
The circus business has been a part of the Feld family since 1967, when Irvin Feld purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. When Irvin died in 1984, his son, Kenneth, took over.
“This is a whole family affair,” he said. “It’s a family affair for our family but also for all the elephants.”
A place to retire and breed
When the center opened 20 years ago, it housed fewer than 10 elephants.
“It was a place for elephants to retire,” Feld said.
Today, the center houses elephants of all ages.
“We have lots of different elephants, meaning males and females, youth elephants, older elephants, so it is a great place to study behavior,” he said.
The center is also focused on breeding the animals. Wendy Kiso, a research and conservation scientist, spends her days at an onsite lab, trying to figure out how to keep the species from going extinct. Part of her lab includes several tanks that “cryo-preserve” elephant sperm at negative-196 degrees.
“We process the semen and we extend it in such a way that we can freeze it,” Kiso said. “This is a genetic resource bank for Asian elephants.”
Twenty-six elephants have been born here, Feld said. Mike, the newest pachyderm to join the group, was born at the center’s birthing barn nearly two years ago.
“We have the largest and only sustainable herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere,” Feld said.
Stretching and pedicures
Caring for the elephants is no small task. Trudy Williams and her husband, Jim, spend their time taking care of the animals’ daily needs. It takes the couple hours to bathe, walk and feed the elephants every day.
“First thing in the morning, we water them, and give them some treats and feed them some hay,” Williams said.
Each elephant eats about 150 pounds of food a day. Twenty-one tons of hay usually lasts only 10 days at the center.
Exercise is also part of the daily routine, including stretching.
“We just do that a few times on each leg with them, just to give them a good stretch,” Williams said.”We do some footwork with them. All of our elephants, generally once a month, get a pedicure, just to make sure their feet are in good condition.”
All of this care isn’t cheap.
“Each elephant costs over $65,000 a year, per year, over all the years of their life,” Feld said. “We’re fortunate we’re for profit. We do make a profit and we’re a privately owned family business, and so we’ve made a decision we want to devote a lot of resources here.”
It’s a price Feld said he’s willing to pay to keep this species — some varieties of which in Asia and Africa are endangered — alive for generations to come.
“I always say, it’s sort of like Jurassic Park with a happy ending,” Feld said. “We knew that if we didn’t do something, maybe my grandchildren would never have the opportunity to see these incredible animals.”