Elephants in Sarasota: Then and Now

Elephants and the circus have a long history and deep connection to Sarasota. John Ringling moved the winter quarters of his Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Sarasota in 1927. The trapeze artists, the lion tamers, the tightrope walkers, and the elephants came. 

Old photo from State of Florida archives shows animals and trainers.
Animal trainers and elephants practicing their acts. (Photo: State Archives of Florida)

The circus acts almost always included animals, and the elephant acts were crowd favorites. They became synonymous with the Big Top. However, over the years, animal rights activists began speaking against the use of animals for entertainment. By 2016, Ringling Brothers retired all their elephants,  ending a 145-year tradition, and the circus closed in 2017. 

Where Did the Elephants Go?

The retired pachyderms now live on the beautiful White Oak Conservation Center for endangered and threatened species in Yulee, Florida, near Jacksonville.  

Will the Circus Return?

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey are reviving their circus, unveiling a plan to bring back a modernized “Greatest Show on Earth” — one without its iconic elephants and other animals. Instead, its producers are scouring the world for people with rare talents and skills who can captivate today’s audiences. 

The new circus will hit the road for a U.S. tour of live shows in September of 2023, according to Feld Entertainment, which produces the events. The new show’s goal, Feld said, is to “celebrate amazing talent from around the world, displaying incredible feats that push the limits of human potential and create jaw-dropping moments.”

Myakka Elephant Ranch

The Myakka Elephant Ranch Logo.
Logo for the Myakka Elephant Ranch.

Those in the Sarasota area can still see three elephants up close at the Myakka Elephant Ranch

The Elephant Ranch provides intimate elephant encounters supervised by professional caregivers. The experience is all about learning and conservation. The ranch staff believe they can make a difference by understanding and sharing their knowledge and information. They often provide free programs for schools.

Back in 1986, the Barreta family owned the property that is now the Myakka Elephant Ranch. It became a home for some orphaned African elephants, but was not open to the public. 

In 2019, Lou Barreda, who grew up on the property, attended the 16th International Elephant Conservation and Research Symposium in South Africa. He returned with the decision to create a non-profit focusing on global elephant conservation. Thus, he founded the non-profit Myakka Elephant Ranch in 2019. Visits to the ranch help support the International Elephant Foundation and the Rory Hensman Conservation and Research Unit. 

Visiting Myakka Elephant Ranch 

Up-close view of an Asian elephant
Carol, one of the Asian elephants in Myakka.

Myakka Elephant Ranch currently cares for three mature female elephants, two Asians, and one African elephant. The African elephant came as an orphan, and the two Asians were purchased to retire them from the entertainment industry. Now, the three freely roam around the 30-acre farm with lovely trees offering plenty of shade. 

To see the elephants, you must book and purchase a reservation through the website, MyakkaElephantRanch.org , which includes signing waivers and forms before your visit. 

The facility offers a few types of encounters. If you sign up for the Elephant Spa experience, you can help wash an elephant. Now how often do you get that opportunity?  

Why Bathe an Elephant?

Elephants are highly dependent on water for drinking, their skin, and general hygiene. The USDA governs all elephants in the United States. Daily bathing is actually a USDA requirement. While the elephant’s daily shower might be fun, it’s necessary for their skincare. It’s not only physically important, it’s also helpful for their mental well-being. Wild elephants also enjoy daily baths when possible.

Elephant get a bath.
On a visit to India in 2014, I saw elephants being bathed.

Rise and Shine VIP Encounter

The Rise and Shine all-access package is a once-in-a-lifetime elephant experience. This exclusive experience is limited to a maximum of 8-10 guests per day. During the unforgettable hour, you will help prepare the elephant’s breakfast, feed them their favorite treats, ask as many questions as you’d like, and have one-on-one time with these majestic creatures. This is your opportunity to hug an Elephant and take unforgettable pictures. Then you will take turns assisting in bathing one Asian elephant. 


$199.00 per person. This is for ticketed patrons ONLY. No spectators are allowed. 

The Elephant Spa Encounter

The Elephant Spa Encounter lasts two hours and is the most beloved. The Spa Encounter involves group participation (up to 25 ) in caring for the elephants. The group spends about an hour on bathing, then joins those who come for the Educational Encounter. 


Ages 5-8 years old – $69.00 per person

Ages 9 and up – $89.00 per person

*Children under four years old are permitted into the spa encounter with a paid adult but cannot participate during the bathing routine. However, with the purchase of the educational encounter, children 4 & under can touch the elephant during the educational portion of the Spa Encounter.

What’s the difference between VIP and Spa encounters?

The VIP is the most intimate hands-on experience limited to 8-10 people. Where the spa Encounter is up to 25, additional people join in for the educational experience. In the VIP, you help prepare the elephant’s meal, feed them, get one on one time, and aid in washing one Asian elephant in 1 hour. The spa will be 2 hours total with much more observation time while 25 people help wash the other two elephants. Then it includes the educational experience. The VIP experience is much more hands-on, and the spa includes a longer observation time.

Elephant Educational Encounter 

The Elephant Educational Experience at Myakka Elephant Ranch.
Learning about elephants at the Myakka Ranch.

The Educational Elephant Encounter is the most popular type of visit. During the one-hour experience, you will learn about elephants and have the opportunity to ask questions. You will also get to touch and take a photo with the elephants.


Ticket Price – $29.00 per person

Children ages two and under are FREE

Elephant Care Workshop 

The Care Workshop is an hour-and-a-half experience limited to 16 guests, only occurring once a week. Help with weekly charting, evaluations, and care. During the workshop, the elephant’s weights are monitored. You learn about trunk mobility and grasping techniques when you give a treat. You’ll have the opportunity to touch and aid in bathing/ caretaking of both African and Asian elephants. If you complete the full Workshop experience, receive a stamped certificate of completion to take home. 


$150.00 per perso

Must be over the age of 5 years old for this encounter. 

My Visit to the Ranch

Touching at elephant at Myakka Elephant Ranch
Looking at those long eyelashes and giving a gentle touch.

I took the basic Educational Experience. when I visited the Myakka Elephant Ranch with a friend. We sat on bleachers in the barn while the elephants were introduced and fed hay. You can immediately see the caretaker’s close relationship and devotion with the animals.

The size of Lou, the African elephant, astounded me.  She’s 9,000 pounds, stands 14 feet tall at the shoulders and has 3-foot long tusks. By being up-close, you see how huge these animals really are!

Lou Barreta, the caretaker and president of the Myakka Elephant Ranch, spoke to the group about elephant habits and habitats and answered all questions. Despite their popularity, elephants face many challenges to survival in the wild, including habitat loss, poaching, and conflict with humans.

Many children attended the session, and the audience seemed enthralled. Afterward, participants took the opportunity to touch each elephant, look them in the eye, and pose for photos. 

After everyone snapped pictures, the elephants walked outside, roaming at will.

Carol, the Asian elephant, seems happy to be roaming free.
Carol seems like a Happy Elephant on the Ranch.

The visit and experience pleased me, and I learned a lot. I would highly recommend this attraction to others. 

The Myakka Elephant Ranch does not spend any money on advertising. They depend on spreading their mission by word of mouth and social media, so please share this story with your friends. 

For more information:  Myakka Elephant Ranch 



 The location is in Myakka City, Florida, 15 miles east of I-75 on CR 64.

Petting a baby elephant in India. 2014.
Meeting a baby elephant in India, 2014.