By Lisa Spooner
POLK COUNTY, FL - Ending a storied tradition, the Barnum and Bailey Circus will retire its elephant performers by 2018.
The 18 elephants will head to a conservation center located between Tampa and Orlando.
Anchor Lisa Spooner got exclusive access to the 20 year old facility and gives us a behind the scenes look at one of Florida's best kept secrets; asking why retire the animals now?
Tucked away in a secret location in Polk County is the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation... A $5 million facility.
Thirty of the world's largest land animals live here. And it's about to get even more crowded.
"We want them all off the road by 2018," explained Janice Aria, the Director of Animal Stewardship.
Elephant performers have been a source of controversy for years.
Critics argue the animals were being mistreated.
Is it basically saying that these protesters and activists have some merit to their accusations, asked Spooner.
Aria responded quickly, "Oh, not at all. Not at all. We've stood by our excellent husbandry and care of these animals."
Aria has been with the circus since the early '70s and the last 20 years have been spent caring for these animals.
She explained, "In the mid 70s the Asian elephant was determined to be severely endangered and they went on the endangered species list."
So Ringling set up this conservation center to help preserve the species.
"So it's crucially important this herd that we have here and our reproduction program to keep Asian elephants in the United States because we won't be bringing any in from the range countries, said Janice.
Trudy Williams is an elephant handler and introduced us to Icky.
"She's a 39-year-old female. She weighs roughly 10,000 pounds. And she's one of our mothers. She's part of our breeding program," said Trudy.
And just like most women, the highlight of Icky's day is her spa treatment.
"Every elephant is scrubbed every day, every inch," said Aria. "And then that way, not only is it great for their hygiene and they're exfoliated, but our handlers get to examine every inch of them and make sure everything's ok."
After Icky, we met her grandson, Mike, the youngest member and one of the more mischievous.
Mike is just 2-years-old. And like any toddler, is always into something.
"They love to smell shoes because they're smelling every place that you've been," explained Williams.
Filling the shoes of the elephants that have been part of the circus for all these years won't be easy.
"Our owners feel that there has been a sway in public opinion," said Aria. "And we want our customers to remain comfortable, happy, comfortable coming to our shows. But hopefully we'll be able to continue and just re-imagine the greatest show on earth."
The center is not open to the public.
But they plan on expanding their educational program to scientists, researchers, and certain school groups. Video.