Photograph by Bill Sikes, AP Photo
Photograph by Bill Sikes, AP Photo

Freed from the circus, where will these elephants live?

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

Many animal lovers have followed the debate over performing circus animals for years. Is it ethical to make tigers jump through rings of fire? How about to have elephants dance in a conga line? Or monkeys ride a bike?

It’s clear by now that circuses can be successful without wild animals. Look at Cirque du Soleil. Is it any worse off for not having costumed bears doing handstands?

Still, it was a big deal when America’s biggest, longest-running circus took elephants out of its shows. After years of reports of poor care and abuse, and an audience increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of animals as sophisticated and intelligent as elephants living the lives of itinerant performers, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus made a big decision four years ago: The circus retired its elephants. (Pictured above, in 2016, the pachyderms’ final performance in Providence, Rhode Island).

Since 2016, they’ve been living at Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. The move was definitely an improvement from their lives as performers, but animal advocates noted the limited space and continued use of foot chains.

Next year, these elephants are moving on to an even better life. White Oak Conservation in Florida has broken ground on a new four-square-mile elephant habitat, complete with grasslands, wetlands, forest, and 11 watering holes big enough for them to bathe in.

Having lived their whole lives in captivity, these elephants could never be released into the wild, but this new habitat will be “some of the best captive welfare that you can have,” Ed Stewart, the co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, told Nat Geo’s Oliver Whang.

White Oak bought all 35 elephants at the Ringling center and plans to bring 30 of them (some are too old to move) to their new habitat next year. The elephants will live out their lives with the freedom to move where they want, socialize how they want, eat when they want, and do what they want.

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Today in a minute

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New frontier: Many animals have seen shrinking habitats. The gray heron, however, appears to be expanding its range. One of the tall waterbirds (aboveN), native to Eurasia and Africa, was spotted in Nantucket, off the Massachusetts coast. It was the first reported sighting of the bird in the contiguous United States, Maureen Seaberg and Douglas Main write.

Building a mystery: More than 300 elephants have been found dead near Botswana’s Okavango Delta in recent months, and no one was quite sure why. In July, Nat Geo’s Dina Fine Maron explored some of the possible causes, including anthrax, a rodent-borne virus, and toxins in the water. On Monday, Botswana announced lab results: toxins from cyanobacteria in the water. But many experts are skeptical. They told Maron that it would be unusual for these toxins to kill only elephants and not other animals drinking the same water. They added that cyanobacteria usually washes away with the rain, so it’s strange the deaths occurred over such a long period.

Sniffing out COVID-19: Finland has brought in dogs at its main airport to sniff out the coronavirus. The pilot program promises results in 10 seconds and would inconvenience travelers for less than a minute, the Washington Post reports. The program is the largest of its kind. In the past, dogs have proven able to detect cancers, infections, and other health problems.

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Natural firefighters: When a fire comes tearing through, animals know to head to beaver habitat. The legendarily busy rodent creates fireproof, green refuges for many species, which begs the question: How can we embrace beavers as firefighters and not property destroyers? The image above, from a beaver-dammed wetland in a fire-ravaged Idaho woodland, shows how dramatic a change those paddle-tailed rodents make.

The first dogs: A subset of frisky wolves, playful toward humans, may have taken the first steps toward domestication, according to new research. These playful wolves began hanging around humans 20,000 to 40,000 years ago in Germany or Siberia, and evolved into helping humans with specific tasks, like hunting, Virigina Morell reports.

Is that an accent? The squawks, shrieks, and whistles of parrots almost disappeared from Puerto Rico, but a captive breeding program raised the population of the endangered Puerto Rican parrot from 13 to 600. The captive parrots, however, developed an entirely new dialect, a phenomenon that has not been observed before in other captive bird populations, Erica Tennenhouse writes for Nat Geo.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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Unbothered: Photographer Prasenjeet Yadav was alone, freezing in India’s Himachai Pradesh state after walking more than an hour in the snow carrying heavy gear. “That's when I saw this beautiful snow leopard resting close to the road,” he said. “I was already pretty close, and it made more sense to lay low than to walk back. It was keeping an eye on me, but didn't look bothered.” Prasenjeet sat down. The leopard put his chin down. “The next few hours were quite unreal. Every time I took a photo, the leopard looked at me, hearing the shutter. That's how close we were. And to make sure not to disturb him, I just chose to shoot less.” A passing vehicle ended the encounter; the leopard, a member of a legendarily elusive species, simply walked away.

Subscriber exclusive: Snow leopards are finally coming into view

The big takeaway

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Cuddly killers? It’s a most unusual photo: 232 animals that had suffered lethal injuries from cats last year. Another surprise: Jak Wonderly’s image took this year’s BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition’s in the Human/Nature category. His image highlights a grim picture: The photo would need to be multiplied 10 million times to come close to showing the billions of animals killed by cats each year. “Our goal was not to be disgusting or shocking. We wanted to present the animals as respectfully as possible and grab people’s attention with their beauty,” says collaborator Melanie Piazza, director of animal care at a nonprofit animal hospital in California.

In a few words

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The last glimpse

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What predicts puppy popularity? Health, life span, and behavior are important, of course, but they don’t matter as much as movie roles. That’s according to a story in the latest National Geographic magazine on America’s popular dog breeds over time. (Above, actor Roddy McDowall lies beneath a tree while animal actor Lassie stands guard in 1943’s Lassie Come Home, which did wonders for the collie.)

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at And thanks for reading.