▶ Watch Video: Former circus elephants get spacious new home in Florida

Thirty-five members of the largest Asian elephant herd in the western hemisphere are being shipped to a lush new habitat at Florida’s White Oak Conservation Center — a far cry from the days of forced performances and conditions that many animal lovers considered abusive. 

The elephants are retirees from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. 

Just beginning in the spring, the first 12 animals in the herd have been sent to the conservation center just south of the Florida-Georgia line.

For conservationist Michelle Gadd, it is a dream come true.

“A lot of kids have this dream of running away and joining the circus,” Gadd told CBS News’ Manuel Bojorquez. “Well, I was that kid who wanted to run away and let all the animals out of the circus.”

Elephant attractions were a part of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s circus for most of its 146-year history. They retired the act in 2016 after years of public outcry against what many considered to be animal cruelty.

They were originally moved to a small preserve south of Orlando before a nonprofit called the Walter Conservation stepped in last fall and bought the 35 elephants, and started construction on the habitat.

In their new habitat, the elephants are able cool off in the water when the Florida sun becomes a bit too much.

CBS News

The animals were finally able to roam free and bond as a herd, and even cool off in the water when the Florida sun becomes a bit too much.

“Elephants are among the most social and empathetic animals out there — and not only are they getting to know their new surroundings, they’re getting to know each other” Bojorquez said.

Gadd said it was the first time the elephants were really interacting as a herd.

“They seem to have sorted out a hierarchy amongst themselves,” she said. “They regrouped right outside the fence and again reassured each other. Rumbled, touched each other, put their trunks in one another’s mouths.”

She singled out a pair of elephants in particular to show the animals’ unique dynamics.

“The two oldest girls, I referred to them as the mean girls, but perhaps they’re just a little bit bossy,” Gadd said.

The conservationist wants people to see that elephants are beautiful just as they are.

“They don’t need to be ridden or trained or do tricks or travel the world,” she said. “Just let them be where they are and there’s nothing more beautiful than that.”

Conservationist Nick Newby Newby said his mission is to give the elephants “a holistic life and a complete life.”

CBS News

The White Oak Elephant Project is led by conservationist Nick Newby. Working with the animals every day, Newby knows them all by name — even from behind.

Because the elephants have been raised and trained to become dependent on humans, Newby said, sending them into the wild is not an option. But here, he hopes they can help humans better understand and appreciate this endangered species — of which only about 50,000 remain.

Newby said his mission is to give the elephants “a holistic life and a complete life.”

“The best thing for these animals is to live in a complex environment that’s pretty darn close to the wild, honestly,” he said.