Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is ushering in the end of an era much sooner than initially anticipated. All of its elephants will be retired by May, a spokesperson said.
There are 11 Asian elephants touring the country, as of January. The pachyderms will soon join the 29 other elephants already retired at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City.
"Certainly this is unprecedented for us. It's historical for Ringing Brothers," said Janice Aria, Director of Animal Stewardship for Ringling Bros.
Aria said the decision came down to answering logistical questions: Is there enough space at the the 200-acre conservation facility to accommodate the additional animals? And could they handle the additional waste, water and food associated with 11 more elephants?
Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros.' Manatee County-based parent company, originally gave itself until 2018 to answer those questions, but was forced to do so much quicker than anticipated.
"It was a very difficult decision for our company to make. We're talking about 145 years of a splendid tradition here," Aria said. "The challenge is on us to provide the kind of stimulation and social grouping that these elephants have on the herds that they're with now."
The initial decision to retire the elephants came in March 2015 after animal rights activists accused the circus of abuse, which Feld Entertainment denies.
But Aria said cities and counties across the country have since passed laws making the continued use of the elephants impractical.
"As our owner, Mr. Feld, said, 'you can't fight City Hall,'" Aria told FOX 13. "It's just become logically impossible to give them the continuity of care that they require."
Louise Kahle, a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has spent years protesting circuses, said she considers herself "optimistically vigilant" when it comes to Ringling Bros., but added she has doubts the circus will ever fully have the animals' best interests in mind.
"I don't trust them," Kahle said. "I'm skeptical. It's such a long pattern of abuse. I would love to wake up tomorrow and see this all changed and I'm going to hope for the best, but I think we have to be vigilant."
Aria said, not only will the elephants be treated well, they will also be able to breed.
"The Center for Elephant Conservation is an incredible place." she said. "There's no place like this in the world that is entirely dedicated to the Asian elephant."
Aria said a scientist in Utah also plants on studying the animals' blood samples to see if he can unlock a key to pediatric cancer; elephants have proven resistant to the disease.