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Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey are stewards of Asian elephants

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The human-animal bond between elephants and humans has existed for more than 4000 years. Elephants have captured our imagination and heart with their anthropomorphic features such as strong family bonds, incredible memories and wisdom. Yet when we move past our cultural ideas of elephants, what do we really know about these animals?

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Understanding the psychology, physiology, husbandry, nutrition and reproduction of the largest land mammal on earth requires a long-term dedication- and that is exactly what Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is committed to.

Elephants and the circus are unlikely bedfellows but they have been working together since 1812. The Asian elephant is a lifelong symbol of the Greatest Show on Earth and a respected and revered member of the Ringling Brothers family. In the past, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey have been the target of warranted criticisms and fallacies, however they are dedicated stewards of the Asian elephant. In 1995, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation or CEC were established to protect the present and future well being of Asian elephants.

The CEC is a working farm dedicated to the conservation, breeding and understanding of Asian elephants. The center provides resources and support to study the physiology, psychology, behavior, nutrition, husbandry and reproduction of Asian elephants as well as support international conservation efforts. This is integral for continuity of the species as the Asian elephant was listed as an endangered species in 1976 and is highly regulated under CITES. Currently there are approximately 45,000 Asian elephants in the world with 500-600 residing in the United States. Their survival is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, human-elephant conflict and poaching. Currently, all Asian elephants are born in preserves yet if they venture outside of their protected habitat, farmers will kill elephants to protect their crops.
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The CEC promotes conservation of Asian elephants by funding projects to mitigate human-elephant conflict and extinguish poaching. As the natural habitat of elephants’ shrinks through deforestation, hungry Asian elephants target village farms that represent the farmer’s primary source of income. Farmers that cannot deter hungry elephants from the easy and tasty food found in village farms will shoot and fatally wound elephants. Every year, villagers defending their farms kill approximately 120 elephants. In addition to habitat loss and human-elephant conflict, Asian elephants are poached for their ivory tusks and other body parts. An unfortunate consequence of elephant deaths is orphan calves. To address the issue of orphaned calves, the CEC funds the Elephant Transit Home, an elephant hospital for orphaned calves in Sri Lanka.

The CEC also seeks to improve the quality of life for Sri Lankans and Thai people particularly the elephant caretakers or Mahouts, according to Janice Aria the director of Animal Stewardship at the CEC. Although village communities incorporate elephants into their lifestyle, many have cultural perspectives that view elephants as nuisances or pests. Through education and training programs the CEC is working to not only teach villagers proper elephant management but to also appreciate elephants. Aria emphasized that, "Ideally, elephants and villagers would live in harmony" and to achieve this idealistic state the CEC is actively searching for natural elephant deterrents such as citrus and bees to discourage elephants from entering village farms. To protect communities from bulls in musth, a heightened state of testosterone during breeding season that render bulls dangerous and unmanageable the CEC has built bullpens in Sri Lanka.

As the home to the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere, the CEC has an active research agenda that has produced several notable achievements. In 2012, the CEC was one of the first to cryopreserve Asian elephant semen- essentially ensuring it’s future. They were also the first to successfully treat elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus, a fatal disease characterized by uncontrollable bleeding with ganciclovir, an anti-viral drug. Other cornerstone programs include geriatric and neonatal care.

The quality of life for elephants at the center is very high as the center strives for and expects excellence. Perhaps this commitment to excellence has come from bitter battles with critics and animal activists or is a product of a rigorous traveling lifestyle. Nonetheless, the largest land mammal on earth commands respect and requires intensive care. The center is akin to an elephant resort with sandy paddocks, an abundance of soft dirt mounds to roll and bath in, high quality hay and restaurant quality produce to dine on with daily baths by handlers. Three full time veterinarians and a reproductive specialist dedicated to the center oversee a high level of health.

Elephants that travel outside of the center with the Greatest Show on Earth receive a high quality of care as well. Although the circus elephant’s welfare and environment is regulated by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act, the quality of care these elephants receive rivals a 5 star day spa. Every day the animals are rigorously bathed, given “pedicures”, exercised, dine on restaurant quality produce and high quality hay and entertained by their handlers. Their workday is shorter than most politicians, with elephants performing seven minutes per day.

Elephants that travel with the circus chose so; needless to say an 11,000-pound animal cannot be forced to do something it does not want to do. Elephants that do not enjoy traveling or the circus life are retired to the center. Similarly, retired elephants that become bored with retirement can go back to the circus.

Elephants that demonstrate an affinity for traveling and performing are trained for specific behaviors using operant conditioning and constant positive reinforcement. Handlers utilize their voice, treats and the guide to teach elephants behaviors. The guide is a controversial tool; it is similar to a leash for a dog or a bridle for a horse. This tool is important for maintaining safe contact with an animal when they exceed the length of a handler’s arm, particularly when elephants reach heights of 10 feet. When used improperly, the guide, the leash or bridle can be harmful and degrade the relationship between the animal and handler. However when used properly it can provide specific cues that enhance communication between the handler and elephant.

Elephant handlers understand that maintaining the integrity of a relationship with an elephant is vital. As intelligent animals, the handler and elephant observe each other’s temperament and behavior to establish a relationship before entering training. By observing and interacting with the elephant prior to training, the trainer can develop an individualized training program for each elephant

A relationship between humans and elephants has existed for more than 4000 years. Like many relationships, this one has seen both good and bad. For some cultures, elephants are living bulldozers whereas others admire their majesty from behind fences. However, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey views elephants as revered family members. Because Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey views animals as family, they are committed to being the leaders in the field of elephant conservation, elephant care and health.

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