JACKSONVILLE, Fla — A luxurious dust bath along with a satisfying butt scratch against a stone barn wall, and Myrtle was ready to mosey into the forest nearby to forage for a morning snack or indulge in an old-fashioned wallow in a watering hole.
Freedom: wild open spaces to explore or a relaxed day spent in a spacious comfortable barn with the prospect of a treat to eat. Such simple pleasures once were denied the 16-year-old and her kin.
But after years chained in place — often in cramped quarters before performing multiple shows a day — the extended family have earned the freedom to choose how they spend their days.
Myrtle is among a dozen female Asian elephants settling into their new home at White Oak Conservation with its peaceful pine forest, broad grasslands and tranquil ponds —all waiting to be explored.
They are the vanguard for up to 32 retired circus elephants that will live out their days at the internationally respected nonprofit wildlife refuge for rare and endangered species on the brink of extinction across the world.
The aging elephants had performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus until being retired in 2016.
White Oak Conservation is building a custom 2,500-acre habitat for the elephants in the heart of the 17,000-acre refuge on the bank of the St. Marys River in Yulee roughly 35 miles north of Jacksonville.
The first phase of the elaborate habitat is finished — clearing the way for the recent arrival of the first group of elephants.
"It was pretty exhilarating to see them take their first steps into a habitat that obviously they'd never seen before. It was pretty awe-inspiring," said Nick Newby, a respected elephant expert recruited by White Oak to head its elephant care team.
Newby has been working with the former circus animals for months in preparation for their transition to the refuge.
Their lives "changed in the blink of an eye, yet the elephants showed little hesitation, he said while watching the group head into the forest Friday morning.
“I was so happy to see them come out together and reassure and comfort each other, just like wild elephants do, and then head out to explore their new environment," Newby said. "Seeing the elephants swim for the first time was amazing.”
The remaining 20 elephants will travel to White Oak — owned and funded by philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter — as soon as the second phase of the elaborate habitat is finished.
"We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore,” the Walters said in announcing the animals' arrival.
Longtime conservationists, the Walters and their family established Walter Conservation — which includes White Oak — to preserve and protect rare species as well as natural habitat across the world.
Creating a home for the retired elephants is an extension of their global conservation efforts. The White Oak herd will be the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
“We are working to protect wild animals in their native habitats," the Walters said. "But for these elephants that can’t be released, we are pleased to give them a place where they can live comfortably for the rest of their lives."
Circus life with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
The circus is the only life most of the elephants have ever known.
The elephants endured days of boredom, traveling thousands of miles in cramped quarters, chained for hours and then performing in multiple shows.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus ended its 146-year run in May 2017, one year after retiring its elephants.
Since retirement, the elephants have lived at the circus' 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, a small community in rural Central Florida.
Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros, has provided food, care and expertise for the elephants going to White Oak.
Feld previously had come under fire from animal-welfare activists who accused the circus of animal abuse. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, one of the relentless critics, however, subsequently praised the plans to relocate the circus elephants to White Oak.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which sets standards for animal care and welfare, supported the relocation. In addition, the International Elephant Foundation also lauded the move.
White Oak Conservation
WHAT: Established in 1982, White Oak is an internationally respected nonprofit wildlife refuge for rare species with 17,000 acres owned and funded by philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter. Guggenheim Baseball Management with Mark Walter as controlling partner owns the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team.
WHERE: 581705 White Oak Road, Yulee.
VISIT: Public events and RSVP-only tours are currently suspended due to COVID-19.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: (904) 225-3200, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit its website at whiteoakwildlife.org.