You won't see her under the big top when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrives for its shows at McKenzie Arena next week, but Janice Aria has one of the biggest jobs with the circus.
Aria is animal steward director at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. She has worked with the animals, particularly Asian elephants, for the last 30 years, and has no plans to retire.
The 200-acre conservation was established in 1995 as a means to breed and better understand the elephants, Aria said. "They are not commodities."
In fact, scientists are studying the way the elephants communicate with one another, she said.
"The idea is that they communicate on a sound frequency that we can't discern. We know that when our elephants are coming 'off the road,' when the truck is miles away, the other elephants start reacting. It humbles you. We have the largest sustainable herd in the Western Hemisphere, and that gives scientists and veterinarians access that they wouldn't have in a zoo or free-range location."
Regardless, Aria gets hate mail from people who make accusations that the animals are abused.
"I've gotten death threats," she said. "The hate mail has escalated in the last two years. I try to cling to the thought that we (the circus and the people writing the hate mail) have the same intention of caring for animals. The natural habitat of the elephants is dwindling in size, and they are being crowded out. We are carrying for these animals 24/7. It's not a job. It's a life for us."
In fact, the elephant conservation is educating others about the elephants by offering an internship program where groups of people live on the working farm.
"They come and learn from us on how to take entry-level care of the Asian elephant," she said. "It's a continuing-education program."
Aria said she fell in love with the animals the first week she worked with them after leaving college her senior year to go to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Florida. She eventually earned a degree in special education from the University of South Florida.
"I decided right away that this what I wanted to do for the rest of life. Part of my romance with the elephants was based on the care I saw them getting. I didn't know people could be involved with this awesome animal. It's a mutual relationship which is showing up in performances. Our commitment to all our animals is from birth to grave."
Elephants are incredibly intelligent, she said.
"The way they go through their day is so inspiring to be around. Everything they do is intentional. They are very individual, and just like you and me, there are some people they really love and some they don't like."
Elephants like to play, Aria said.
"The toys they play with are phenomenal. One 10-year-old plays with 'boomer' balls, huge plastic balls, that are made especially for zoo animals. He corrals his together and stands on them. It's very determined and intentional. He weighs 7,000 pounds, so to see it is amazing."
Just half of the elephants born at the conservation perform in the shows, she said, noting that the decision is based on how they listen to commands and whether they are easily spooked.
Ones that do exhibit a showmanship quality travel with the circus to see if they blend in with the already established group.
The elephant is the flagship animal of a circus, Aria said.
"Without clowns or elephants, you don't have a circus, P.T. Barnum said," Aria said. "There's some huge emotional trigger that elephants provide. That's a reason animal activists come after us. People on both sides of the issue are emotionally triggered by elephants who have a wise, gentle look in their eyes. People who are misinformed come up with all kinds of interpretations of what we do."
Just last month, Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, won a lawsuit filed more than a decade ago by animal special-interest groups who ultimately sought to outlaw elephants in the circus.
"Most people who enjoy our magnificent show are totally unaware that a portion of the proceeds go to our conservation programs," Aria said.
Two years ago, conservation staff members went to Sri Lanka, a country that has a large population of elephants.
"Sri Lanka is the size of West Virginia," Aria said. "They have about 5,000 elephants, and it's a no-brainer that the human population is crowding the elephants out of their habitat. The only place the elephants are protected is in natural preserves where they are only kept in by electric fences. If they wander out to the nearby rice paddies, they're shot.
"Part of Ringling's conservation agenda is to train the people of Sri Lanka how to care for these amazing animals in captivity. We brought back to Florida four Sri Lanka graduate students so they could learn all the aspects of captive care, including diet," Aria said. "Today they have gone back and are teaching their people to care for the elephants and not to shoot them."
The good work is continuing, she said.
"These folks were begging for our help. Ringling Bros. opened a center there for Asian elephant research. To be my age (early 60s) and see this evolve has validated my life. The family who owns the circus and is working to prevent the extinction of this animal will be their legacy."