Miami - The 70-year-old elephant, Mysore, clamped her jaw down on my hand. For a moment, I wondered if I would go through life from there on with the nickname "Lefty".
But, though marinated in elephant saliva, I was safe. The Asian elephant's teeth lie in the back of her jaw, safely out of the way of the naïve reporter stuffing her with white bread in a blend of pure faith and ignorance that his hand would emerge intact from the massive maw. The agility of Mysore's gargantuan tongue was impressive. She left no slice behind.
Between interviews and filming, Toronto-based producer Jet Belgraver, photographer Andre Khalil and I shamelessly posed for selfies and Facebook pics with the sweetly insatiable Mysore. A couple hours later, as we picked up a gas-station lunch for the hour-long drive to Tampa, I realised I still had elephant slobber on my hands. There's a problem I never had covering the White House.
This was the highlight of our trip to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Centre for Elephant Conservation. The occasion: The circus held a final performance in Rhode Island, folded the elephant tent for good and shipped the performers to their permanent retirement in Central Florida, where they arrived Thursday. The era of the elephant in "the greatest show on earth" is over.
Years of protests and failed legal challenges had taken their toll (There is no public record of Ringling Brothers losing any of them. In fact the company won $25m in one suit). Officially the company's parent Feld Entertainment said it wasn't the protesters from People from the Ethical Treatment of Animals that ended the programme, two years earlier than its planned 2018 demise, but the town-by-town patchwork of restrictions on how the company handles them that made it impractical.
"You can't leave the elephants at the border," Feld spokesman Stephen Payne told us. "If City A had different regulations than City B, that posed a problem. So rather than continue to fight all these regulations, we decided to make an even greater investment here at the Ringling Brothers Centre for Elephant Conservation to really put our money, our time, all our efforts to make sure this species is going to be around for future generations."
To be donated to zoos
The endangered elephants, closest living relatives to the mastodon, will be studied. There are just 35,000 worldwide, 280,000 of them in North America and now 40 at Ringing Brothers' Centre for Elephant Conservation in Central Florida. The company says it will breed them to preserve the species. Because they are endangered, they can be neither imported nor exported. Some will be donated or loaned to zoos, but not sold, Payne says.
Controversies remain. The elephants are chained overnight and during meals to keep them from fighting and stealing one another's food, Ringling's Janice Aria says. PETA and other groups dislike that. Interviewing an elephant is a challenge that usually yields little more than a clear understanding that they enjoy a nice treat, but we did see them each lined up at their enclosures at the end of the day, apparently eager for a scrub-down and a meal.
Animal rights activists also object to the use of the curved stick called a bull hook, used to direct the massive pachyderms. A quick search of YouTube comes up with clips of trainers apparently abusing the animals with the sticks in order to persuade them to cooperate. But trainers at the conservation centre, at least two of whom bore elephant tattoos (admittedly, one of them was a cartoon Dumbo), insist when used correctly the sticks don't harm the elephants and keep the trainers safe from the massive and sometimes dangerous creatures.
"Do we use bull hooks? Yes, yes we do. It's the most humane and appropriate tool for working with large elephants. And that's just not our position. It's the position of the Department of Agriculture, our primary regulatory authority in the US. It's also the position of the American Veterinary Medical Association," Feld's Payne said. "The people who are trying to demonise this tool are doing it for political reasons and really don't know what it's like to take care of an elephant firsthand."
Different methods of breeding
Ringling scientist Wendy Kiso and others will continue to study and breed the elephants, preserving a species that has fewer and fewer truly wild homes in the grasslands of Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia. Sometimes a female is introduced to a male, sometimes the breeding's done by artificial insemination. "So, how do you … ?" I considered asking, before giving up on the question altogether.
More intriguingly, pediatric cancer doctor Dr. Joshua Schiffman of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute will study their blood for clues into how humans can improve their cancer resistance as elephants do. Elephants are made up of about 100 times the number of cells humans are, which means they should be 100 times more likely to develop cancer. But they rarely do. It's theorised this is because humans have two cancer-fighting P-53 genes, while elephants have 40.
"We know that the elephants themselves rarely develop cancer and we believe this is due to the extra copies of this P-53 gene that they have in all of the cells in their body," Schiffman told me. "By studying their blood closely and understanding how this P-53 gene works, what we're trying to understand is: Can we one day synthesise, make our own elephant P-53 in the laboratory, load it up in some type of novel delivery system to use as a drug to treat cancer or maybe - just maybe one day in the future – prevent cancer, the way that these elephants almost never develop cancer themselves."
PETA and other groups object to the medical testing as well, though Schiffman says he merely tests the blood Ringling trainers routinely take to monitor the elephants for disease (They are particularly susceptible to a raging form of the Herpes virus).
As they climbed out of the trucks that brought them to their Florida retirement home, Ringling's last performing elephants linked boot and tail and marched forward, two intertwining their raised trunks. Shortly thereafter, more than a dozen joined in an elephant brunch staged for visiting journalists. However these globe-hopping packyderms feel about performing circus tricks on the road, they seemed to enjoy the homecoming retirement meal. And we enjoyed spending an afternoon with some of the biggest and, judging by our brief stay, biggest hearted - mammals on earth.