Ringling Bros. shuts down: Is this the end of an entertainment era?

'The Greatest Show on Earth' announced that the circus will perform for the last time in May, bringing more than a century of entertainment to a close.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters/File
Elephants perform during Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus' "Circus Extreme" show at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., last spring.

The curtains will fall for the last time at the Ringling Bros. circus this year.

The event known as “The Greatest Show on Earth” will hold its last performances later this spring, drawing the century-old tradition to a close in May. The move follows a drop in ticket sales, which came after the circus ceded to pressure from animal rights groups last year and removed elephants from the show.

“Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop,” Kenneth Feld, the chief executive of Feld Entertainment, which owns and operates the circus, said in a statement announcing the decision. “This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”

Once lauded as a family-friendly pastime, the circus has become a more controversial event in recent years, with some choosing to steer clear of it in support for animal rights. The cultural shift had left circus operators struggling to attract the nationwide audiences in ways they once did, and venues such as SeaWorld have seen similar challenges, bringing their orca shows to an end amid pressure from activist groups.

Animal rights organizations, like PETA, applauded the decision.

“All other animal circuses, roadside zoos, and wild animal exhibitors, including marine amusement parks like SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, must take note: society has changed, eyes have been opened, people know now who these animals are, and we know it is wrong to capture and exploit them,” the organization said in a statement.

Attendance at Ringling Bros. shows had declined over the past decade, culminating in the drastic drop this year with the absence of the elephant shows. The animals currently involved in the show will be placed in new homes when the tour comes to a close in May.

Other popular animal shows have faced the same fate in the past; torturing animals was once a form of entertainment, but is now seen as sadistic. Spectacles such as dogfighting have been widely denounced or deemed illegal.

While entertainment shows featuring animals have struggled, other performance events, such as Cirque du Soleil, have thrived, raking in billions of dollars with its traveling shows, indicating that there’s still a market for live circus performances that don't showcase live animals.

Circus operators also say the digital age and other advancements have rapidly changed the world, ushering in a new era with which the two-hour-long show struggles to compete.

"The competitor in many ways is time," Mr. Feld told the Associated Press, noting that transporting the show by rail and other preparations associated with the traveling circus echo another era. "It's a different model that we can't see how it works in today's world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price. So you've got all these things working against it."

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