Why Ringling Bros. elephant shows will end early

The circus announced that it will retire the last of its performing Asian elephants in May, a year and a half earlier than expected.

(Zack Wittman/The Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Bonnie Feld laughs as she climbs on top of Karen, a trained elephant, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus walk elephants in preparation for their show in Tampa, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.

In May, 11 elephants touring with The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will retire, permanently ending the 145-year-old circus’ iconic elephant show.

The parent company of the circus, Feld Entertainment, is ending its elephant acts a year and a half earlier than it promised to back in March, said its president Kenneth Feld, because it realized after it started planning that it could accelerate the process.

The retiring Asian elephants will join a herd of 42 others already living at the company's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, which one day may open to the public, said Mr. Feld earlier this year.

"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," she said.

The decision to end the show comes after years of pressure from animals rights groups that brought public attention to the plight of these intelligent and emotional creatures, though their years of allegations of elephant abuse at the hands of Ringling circus employees were never proven.

Another major motivator for the circus has been financial pressure resulting from the establishment of increasingly stricter “anti-circus” and “anti-elephant” ordinances throughout the country that made touring with elephants too expensive.

"All of the resources used to fight these things can be put towards the elephants," said Feld in March. "We're not reacting to our critics; we're creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant," he said.

The circus will continue to use other animals, though, including horses, dogs, and tigers. But animal rights advocates hope that retirement of the elephants will set a precedent for other companies by showing that the circus can be profitable without some animal shows.

Circuses such as Cirque de Soleil and the Big Apple Circus have been popular without any animal acts, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported.

“There are a lot of circuses, but Ringling is the biggest. What they do is going to have a ripple effect throughout the industry. It’s earth moving,” Carol Bradley, who wrote a book about an elephant rescued from a circus, told the Monitor in 2015.

“But I hope they take it to the next step and realize that no animals should be held in confinement.”

Feld noted that the company is eager to evolve with the times. He pointed out 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 ended that show, he said.

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

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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