The last 11 touring elephants from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus kicked off their retirement in Florida on Friday with a buffet brunch of carrots, apples, celery, loaves of bread and lots of hay.
Circus spokesman Stephen Payne told The Associated Press the elephants arrived at the 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida after performing their final shows in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. They join 29 others already retired to the center after the circus announced last year it would stop using elephants in response to the number of cities and counties that passed ordinances prohibiting the use of bull hooks or nixing wild animal acts altogether.
Executives from Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, have said it's difficult to organize tours of three traveling circuses to 115 cities each year and fighting legislation in each jurisdiction is expensive.
Feld has a herd of 40 Asian elephants, the largest in North America. It will continue a breeding program and the animals will be used in a cancer research project.
On Friday, 23 of the herd dined on the buffet. All but one were female elephants. Smokey, the lone male, is neutered and can co-exist with the females peacefully.
"Smokey does not have the aggressive tendencies," said Payne, adding that unaltered male elephants are solitary, territorial and highly aggressive.
The oldest elephant at the center is named Mysore; she is 70.
Elephants have been the symbol of this circus since P.T. Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882.
The circus will continue to use tigers, dogs and goats, and a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders joined its Circus Xtreme show. While animal rights activists decry the use of these animals, the elephants in particular were a problem, groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said. Elephants are social in the wild and enjoy living in family-like environments. Traveling the country in rail cars was inhumane and caused depression in the animals, activists said.
Some in the animal rights community wondered if the Feld family's decision had anything to do with the fallout over "Blackfish," a documentary exploring why the orca Tilikum killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
The documentary argues that killer whales in captivity become more aggressive to humans and each other. Since it aired, several entertainers pulled out of performances at SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. parks, and Southwest Airlines ended its marketing partnership.
The company announced in 2015 that it would retire the full herd to the center by 2018. But once officials began planning details, they realized they could do it sooner because building the new structures to house the retiring elephants didn't take as long as they originally thought, company officials said. It costs about $65,000 yearly to care for each elephant.
The Center for Elephant Conservation is located in rural Polk City, between Orlando and Tampa.
Animal rights activists have long alleged that circuses have mistreated elephants.
In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from a number of animal-rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle over allegations that Ringling circus employees mistreated elephants.
While the elephants will be retired, they will be used for research purposes. Payne said the extent of the research is confined to blood draws.
"We're hoping that 55 million years of elephant evolution can teach us something about cancer," he said.
Cancer is much less common in elephants than in humans, even though the big animals' bodies have many more cells. That's a paradox known among scientists, and now researchers think they may have an explanation, one they say might someday lead to new ways to protect people from cancer.