Elephants in the News

Ringling Bros. elephant at Fort Worth Zoo won't be retired — yet

Ringling Bros. elephant at Fort Worth Zoo won't be retired — yet

Ringling Bro. Circus, Elephants leading, July 2012
Ringling Bros. announced that it will phase out elephants by 2018. Photo by Karen Burd

After 145 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced on March 5 that it will retire its signature elephants from the show by 2018 and keep them at a sanctuary in Florida. But one of Ringling's elephants remains right here in Fort Worth, where its keepers hope it will sire a calf.

The male Asian elephant named Casey has been on a "breeding loan" to the Fort Worth Zoo since 2008, part of a long-term relationship between Ringling and the Fort Worth Zoo, says spokeswoman Alexis Wilson.

"It began with our taking one of their bulls on a breeding loan," she says. "You need to introduce a new male into the herd, which zoos do in order to continue to keep the managed populations of elephants genetically diverse."

The zoo's current elephant lineup consists of two bulls, three cows and two calves, which were born in the summer of 2013. Despite the zoo's wishes, Casey has so far not bred a calf.

Wilson says that moving animals around is a common practice among zoos. "It's also natural for animals in the wild to move," she says. "A bull wouldn't necessarily stay with a single herd. It mimics their natural behavior."

Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company, owns 43 elephants, with 13 still on tour and the other 29 at the company's conservation center in Florida. Part of the reason Ringling finally decided to phase out the elephants was because cities such as Los Angeles and Oakland have passed ordinances prohibiting the use of bull-hooks, the sharp-edged tool trainers and handlers use to get the elephants to perform.

But "some of that is old-school," Wilson says, despite the fact that bull-hooks continue to be used.

"I'm a dog person," she says. "Remember it wasn't that long ago that the way you'd housebreak your dogs is you'd rub their nose in it. Then we started to figure out that wasn't as effective as showing positive reinforcement. I think there's been a similar shift [in circuses and zoos], although I can't put a timeline to it."

The Fort Worth Zoo is not the only zoo with whom Ringling has a relationship, but it is home to executive director Michael Fouraker, who in 1998 founded the International Elephant Foundation (IEF), an Azle-based conservation group whose current president is Tom Albert, a Feld VP. In response to the announcement of the elephants' retirement, IEF issued an unusual defense of the circus that went against the tide of organizations congratulating Ringling for its move.

Wilson reiterates IEF's statement, saying that the "downside" of Ringling no longer hauling elephants around is that people won't see elephants in person, which she insists cannot compare with seeing it on TV or online.

"Fewer adults and children will see and develop a connection with a live Asian elephant in their hometown," she says. "Seeing it on a computer screen there's no way it can give you the experience of seeing something live."

In the meantime, there is Casey. "I don’t know how long Casey will be here," Wilson says. "He could be here another week or another eight years. What I do know is that our relationship with Ringling will continue."