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Science & Environment

Ringling Elephants Retire To Florida For Cancer Research

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Move over, snowbirds. The divas are the hottest new retirees in Florida. Divas - that's what Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey calls its female elephants who are done performing. As Crystal Chavez reports from member station WMFE, Ringling's last touring elephants have arrived at their sunny Florida retirement home.

CRYSTAL CHAVEZ, BYLINE: Ringling held a circus-like show for media to honor its retiring elephants at its 200-acre farm near Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'd like to thank you guys for coming out today for this epic event, the biggest event here at our Ringling Bros...

CHAVEZ: A line of massive elephants trots out in formation, trunk to tail, to a Thanksgiving-like table full of bread, carrots, lettuce and apples. And then they chow down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANTS TRUMPETING)

CHAVEZ: These divas are high maintenance. They get regular manicures and eat up to 250 pounds of food a day. Ringling says it costs $65,000 a year per elephant to care for them. About 40 endangered Asian elephants now call central Florida home, the largest herd in the Western Hemisphere. This group caught the attention of Dr. Joshua Schiffman. He cares for children with cancer in Salt Lake City. Elephants rarely get cancer.

JOSHUA SCHIFFMAN: For me, then a lightbulb went off in my head.

CHAVEZ: So doctors partnered with Ringling to get elephant blood samples. They're taken anyway as part of the animals' veterinary care. By studying elephant DNA, Schiffman found they have way more copies of a specific gene that he believes helps suppress cancer in elephants.

SCHIFFMAN: After 55 million years of evolution, elephants, these amazing creatures wandering around here at the Center for Elephant Conservation, they have figured out how to avoid cancer. Now it's our turn as humans to try to learn from these elephants.

CHAVEZ: So the elephants are no longer forced to twirl under the big top, and they're helping to find a cure for cancer. All's rosy for Ringling, right?

RACHEL MATHEWS: Absolutely not.

CHAVEZ: That's Rachel Mathews with PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

MATHEWS: It does not outweigh the fact that these animals are - have been exploited for their entire lives, and even in so-called retirement, Ringling continues to find ways to exploit them.

CHAVEZ: Mathews says these elephants are not going into true retirement. Ringling chains its elephants at night and still uses electric prods. Animal activists would rather the elephants go to accredited sanctuaries with thousands of acres to roam. As for Ringling, they plan to keep their elephants right where they are. After all, they've been a part of the family for 145 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANTS TRUMPETING)

CHAVEZ: For NPR News, I'm Crystal Chavez in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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