The rail-car door was open just a crack. Just enough for a pink-speckled gray trunk to feel its way out, a creature all its own. Its single fingertip felt along the rail car's lower edge, explored the crisp outside air. The mile-long Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train was parked in the sunshine along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. At the doors of two of the train's cars, handlers were setting up ramps.

The trunk withdrew inside.

Two months from now, the circus' elephants would give their last performance and transition to a Ringling facility in Central Florida, out of the public eye. Ringling called the transition of the elephants the bittersweet end of a 145-year-old family-friendly tradition.

Animal rights activists hailed it as a win against an inherently abusive form of entertainment.

The rail-car doors had been opened. At one of them, an enormous, wrinkled gray head was emerging. Her name was Asia. At 7,900 pounds, she was so big and so textured, and the rail car so industrial-silvery sleek and small in comparison, she looked like an alien stepping through a portal from another world.

Asia was born wild somewhere on the continent for which she was named in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. The first record of her in this country was in 1971, when she was bought by an old elephant hand in the Catskills. That was two years before Congress banned the importation of endangered species like Asian elephants. Still a baby, she was among the last wild-born Asian elephants brought to this country. In 1988 she was sold to a powerboat-racing restaurateur who'd decided to have a go at the performing-elephant business. Ringling acquired her in 1991.

Her four traveling companions also got off the circus train's two elephant cars. The biggest was Tonka at 11,000 pounds, then Luna at 8,200. Though they were in their early 30s and technically adults, Tonka and Luna were more like teenage besties, following each other around, sleeping side by side, standoffish toward outsiders. The other two elephants, 10-year-old Mable and 6-year-old April, were less than half their size and twice as energetic. All four were born in captivity in Florida.

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Elephants have been the stars of American circuses since circuses began.  To control circus elephants, handlers use the bull hook, a 2,500-year-old tool developed by mahouts in Asia. Used properly, it guides elephants through touch in combination with verbal cues and rewards. But with a pointed metal tip and hook, the bull hook is better known for being misused to stab and beat elephants.

Starting in 1969, the legendary Ringling animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams pioneered a way of presenting wild animals in shows: as friendly partners rather than as dangerous beasts to be dominated by brave men. "That change seemed at first almost like a nuance," says Janice Aria, who has worked with elephants and bears during a long career with Ringling. "But I saw that really had an amazing trickle-down effect into the way all of us approached this."

By 2015, the Feld family, which owns Ringling, had spent years confronting more and more bull hook bans. It wasn't just elephants. Last year SeaWorld announced the end of its signature killer whale shows. By then, Ringling had already done the same for its elephant performances.

"We said, we're devoting so much time to this, it's a distraction and we're in the entertainment business," explains Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive of Feld Entertainment. "We're 146 years old. We're older than Coca-Cola. We're older than baseball. How have we survived? By embracing change and doing new things and understanding new ways to operate."

The Felds decided their elephants would perform for the last time on Sunday, May 1, 2016 — the Red Unit in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the Blue Unit in Providence, R.I.

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In a spartan RV parked by the elephant paddock in Wilkes-Barre, Ryan Henning shrugged into his black tuxedo jacket. Outside the backstage area before the start of the elephants' second-to-last show, Henning stood before the portal with Asia. Her tail swayed, relaxed. Above his head, a red-white-and-blue-spangled young woman perched astride Asia's shoulders. Henning and Asia had been standing together for TV news cameras in town after town, a human-elephant spokesteam: "It's the end of an era, it's bittersweet, but at the end of the day it's about ensuring that these beautiful divas will be around for many generations," while Asia's industrious trunk popped the hunks of bread he offered into her smile-shaped mouth.

When the portal curtains opened and the ringmaster began to belt "The Star-Spangled Banner," they walked out into the spotlight for the show's made-in-America opening moment: a man from Wisconsin striding briskly alongside an elephant from Asia ridden by a woman from Mongolia carrying a large, flowing American flag. The routine was simple. Once around the arena, stop, raise trunk and right foot in a kind of salute to the land of the free and the home of the brave. It's hard to say if Asia was enjoying herself, but the audience was cheering wildly.

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As the elephants ambled away from the arena after their final eight-minute performance, they were loaded into three tractor-trailers and set off, convoying south on Interstate 81.

They were headed for Florida, the place where Mable and April were born, Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation, which is north of Lakeland near Polk City. Traveling and performing with a circus was undeniably hard, but it was also a physically and mentally stimulating life. Mable had delivered the most enthusiastic kicks. April might not have been at it long enough to miss it. Asia seemed ready to slow down; Tonka, too, who moved more stiffly than the others. Luna would be happy wherever Tonka was.

No sign announces Ringling's Center for Elephant Conservation. It's nestled along a country road behind a fence and a guard shack. Researchers at the center study the Ringling elephants' activity levels and social interactions. They're exploring how to diversify a shrinking gene pool to avoid inbreeding. They're supporting research into herpes, which kills elephants similarly to the way Ebola kills humans, and tuberculosis. Both diseases are found in wild populations, too.

Outside the Florida lab lie 50 acres of barns, paddocks, fenced pastures and open fields and forest, next to an additional 150 acres of protected wetlands. The five Red Unit elephants and the six from the Blue Unit are joining 27 already living at the center fulltime, making Ringling's herd of Asians the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Twenty-six calves have been born at the center since it was established in 1995, with another due in November.

On a morning in early June, it's bath time in the shade of an open-air pavilion. Within sight of other members of the herd, Asia and Mable suck up water from buckets and spray themselves. April toys with a hose. Not far away, Tonka and Luna share a paddock where the two besties dug themselves a wallow after a rainstorm and frolicked in the mud. Until a month ago, Mable and April were usually placed with an adult elephant between them, like children parked on either side of a parent in church. Here at the CEC, they spend all their days and nights with Asia.

Later, Asia and April are napping beside each other in the shade while Mable grazes nearby in the sunshine, keeping watch. There are no plans to invite the public to watch the Ringling elephants adjust to their new lives. The CEC facility wasn't designed with crowds in mind. Operations manager Pat Harned is training younger elephants like 3-year-old Piper, but only to associate certain words with lifting her feet for inspection and picking up things with her trunk. He's not training her to climb up on a bull tub and dance.

Still, activists voiced suspicions. Ringling representatives themselves seemed to be wrestling with where to go from here, including Kenneth Feld, who wondered aloud: "That's what our next thing is. How can more people appreciate these elephants now that they're not on the circus? And how can they go and see them someplace and be close to them and understand them?"

So far, the only public access is when Janice Aria, the animal stewardship director, Skypes with schoolchildren. She sets up her laptop in front of the pasture where Asia, April and Mable spend their days. Two other adult elephants are brought from their pasture to stand beside Aria while she talks with the children. In the background, Mable and April come to the fence to watch.