Why Ringling Bros. won't have an elephant act anymore

By 2018, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will phase out the show's iconic elephants. What's behind the decision?

(AP Photo/Ho, Gary Bogdon, Feld Entertainment Inc.)
In this Jan. 3, 2015 photo provided by Feld Entertainment Inc., elephants perform at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said it will phase out its iconic elephant acts by 2018.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will phase out the show's iconic elephants from its performances by 2018, telling The Associated Press exclusively that growing public concern about how the animals are treated led to the decision.

Executives from Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company, said the decision to end the circus's century-old tradition of showcasing elephants was difficult and debated at length. Elephants have often been featured on Ringling's posters over the decades. The decision is being announced Thursday.

"There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," said Alana Feld, the company's executive vice president. "A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."

Feld owns 43 elephants, and 29 of the giant animals live at the company's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. Thirteen animals will continue to tour with the circus before retiring to the center by 2018. One elephant is on a breeding loan to the Fort Worth Zoo.

Another reason for the decision, company President Kenneth Feld said, was that certain cities and counties have passed "anti-circus" and "anti-elephant" ordinances. The company's three shows visit 115 cities throughout the year, and Feld said it's expensive to fight legislation in each jurisdiction. It's also difficult to plan tours amid constantly changing regulations, he said.

"All of the resources used to fight these things can be put towards the elephants," Feld said during an interview at the Center for Elephant Conservation. "We're not reacting to our critics; we're creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant."

The circus will continue to use other animals — this year it added a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders to its Circus Xtreme show. It will likely showcase more motorsports, daredevils and feats of humans' physical capabilities. Ringling's popular Canada-based competitor, Cirque du Soleil, features human acts and doesn't use wild animals.

"There are endless possibilities," said Juliette Feld, another executive vice president of the company and a producer of Feld's Marvel Universe Live, Disney on Ice and Monster Jam shows, among others.

Feld owns the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America. It costs about $65,000 yearly to care for each elephant, and Kenneth Feld said the company would have to build new structures to house the retiring elephants at the center, located in between Orlando and Tampa on a rural, ranchlike property.

Kenneth Feld said initially the center will be open only to researchers, scientists and others studying the Asian elephant.

Eventually, he "hopes it expands to something the public will be able to see."

"I want everybody's grandkids to be able to see Asian elephants," he said.

The center's youngest elephant is Mike, who will be 2 in August, and the oldest is Mysore, who is 69. One elephant, 6-year-old Barack, was conceived by artificial insemination. Since the center opened in 1995, 26 elephants have been born there.

Ringling's elephants have been at the center of lawsuits and ongoing complaints from animal rights activists.

In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from a number of animal-rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle over unproven allegations that Ringling circus employees mistreated elephants.

The initial lawsuit was filed in 2000 by a former Ringling barn helper who was later found to have been paid at least $190,000 by the animal-rights groups that helped bring the lawsuit. The judge called him "essentially a paid plaintiff" who lacked credibility and standing to sue. The judge rejected the abuse claims following a 2009 trial.

Kenneth Feld testified during that trial about elephants' importance to the show.

"The symbol of the 'Greatest Show on Earth' is the elephant, and that's what we've been known for throughout the world for more than a hundred years."

When asked by a lawyer whether the show would be the same without the elephants, Feld replied, "No, it wouldn't."

This week, Feld said, "Things have changed."

"How does a business be successful? By adapting," he said.

Feld noted that when his father bought the circus in 1967, there was still a human sideshow featuring acts such as the bearded lady and other human oddities. His father did away with that, he said.

"We're always changing and we're always learning," he said.

In 2008, Feld acquired a variety of motor sports properties, including monster truck shows, motocross and the International Hot Rod Association, which promotes drag races and other events. In 2010, it created a theatrical motorcycle stunt show called Nuclear Cowboyz. Roughly 30 million people attend one of Feld's 5,000 live entertainment shows every year.

____

Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.