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Asian Elephants Find Oasis in Florida

The Asian elephant is believed to be one of the most intelligent animals on Earth. It is also one of the most endangered. But a sanctuary in the southern state of Florida is hoping to save this large animal and ensure its existence for generations to come. For producer Yi Suli, VOA's Elaine Lu has more on the Center for Elephant Conservation.

Asian elephants have been featured performers in the world famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for close to 140 years. Adam Murdoch is an animal handler with the circus. "A lot of people come to the circus in order to see the elephants. So whenever they see them, in the show or the pre-show, they already had an appreciation for them," he says.

Janice Aria, manager of animal stewardship for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, says the Asian elephants were first added to the endangered species list three decades ago. "It is a very grave situation. They estimated there are only 35,000 to 50,000 remaining in the wild. And the situation in the wild gets more grave each year for the elephants. There is tremendous economic development in their range countries. Unfortunately, the elephants don't fit in."

This is where Feld Entertainment, the company that owns the circus, stepped in. They created a place dedicated to the conservation, breeding, and care of Asian elephants. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation was established in 1995. When elephants finish their circus careers, they retire to this 81 hectare, $5 million facility to live out their lives under expert care. Bruce Read is a Vice President of Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus. "Our elephants are all valued in the circus as well as the CEC [Center for Elephant Conservation]. We spend on average $62,000 annually for the care and management of every elephant that we own."

The highly trained staff cares for the Center's 30 elephants seven days a week. In the morning, the elephant’s wake up to some morning exercise, and then animal handler Trudy Williams gives them showers and feeds them. "This is basically the daily diet of our elephants. Each one of these bales of oat hay is about 125 pounds (57 kilograms). Then there is roughly 12 pounds (5 kilograms) of carrots here. And they get a small portion of 5 pounds (2 kilograms) of timothy hay"

Michael Hayward, another animal handler at the Center, says the staff really invests a lot emotionally. "I have (a) father, teacher type relationship with them. I spend so much time with them. I know their personalities, what they like, what their favorite foods are."

Bruce Reid says preserving the Asian elephant is an important mission at the Center. "Really, the largest breeding herd in North America. It works toward self-sustaining as a captive population."

The Center has also become a hub for Asian elephant study. Researchers from around the world come here to better understand the giant mammal. Trudy Williams believes there is nothing better than retiring to Florida to bathe in such care and attention. "If I were an elephant, I would want to live here."