For many people, seeing any animal in captivity is a tragic sight. But when an animal cannot safely be released into the wild, a captive-but-comfortable space is the next best thing.
That's the situation for a dozen female pachyderms who have joined the Yulee refuge at the White Oak Conservation Center north of Jacksonville, Florida. The Asian elephants, who are endangered in the wild, are former circus animals that were retired from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2016. The group includes two sets of full sisters and several half-sisters. Elephants tend to live together in multi-generational family groups led by a matriarch.
Philanthropists Mark and Kimbra Walter, who fund the refuge for rare species, say they are "thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore."
"We are working to protect wild animals in their native habitats," the Walters said in a statement. "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."
Up to 20 more elephants are expected to come live at the refuge in the near future.
According to the AP, Nick Newby leads the team that cares for the elephants and has spent the past few years getting to know each elephant and their habits.
"Watching the elephants go out into the habitat was an incredible moment," Newby said in a statement. "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. Seeing the elephants swim for the first time was amazing."
The refuge covers about 17,000 acres and will eventually include nine interlinked areas that boast a variety of habitat types, including wetlands, meadows, and woods. the center is also constructing 11 waterholes and three barns that will hold veterinary equipment. As of now, the elephants have plenty of space to roam, whether they want to stay near the barn and their caregivers, wander through the woods, play in the mud, or swim in the pond.
It's already home to several endangered and threatened species, including rhinos, okapi, bongos, zebras, condors, dama gazelles and cheetahs.
"In the last few years, everything has changed for these elephants for the better — from their retirement to the way they interact with humans and the space they have to roam," said Steve Shurter, White Oak's executive director, in a statement. "For the first time in their lives, these elephants can choose where and how they want to spend their days."
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