The end of an era? Ringling Bros. to retire its elephant act

Increased public concern with elephant welfare has led the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to phase out its iconic elephant act.

Chris O'Meara/AP
A male elephant scratches on the bars of his pen at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Fla., Feb. 24. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said it will phase out its iconic elephant acts by 2018.

Animal rights advocates achieved a victory Thursday when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced plans to phase out its iconic elephant act by the year 2018. The decision was prompted by increased public concern about how the large mammals are treated.

“People are becoming more educated about the life and training of these elephants. They often live in chains, sometimes in a trailer, and that’s how they spend their lives. As people become more educated they become less tolerant,” says Margaret Whittaker, director of elephant care at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. 

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

The news was cause for celebration among animal rights activists, who have long asserted that the massive land mammals do not belong in a circus.

“We are so thrilled that Ringling has taken this step and we look forward to the retirement of all of these elephants,” says Ms. Whittaker.

Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company, had won $25.2 million in settlements from animal rights groups that were unable to prove that circus employees had mistreated the elephants. Yet despite the legal victory, consumer discomfort with the sight of trained elephants was enough to motivate the company to abandon its signature show and redirect its resources. Now, the company will finance new structures to house retiring elephants on the company-owned Center for Elephant Conservation, located on a rural ranch between Orlando and Tampa, Fla.

It was a difficult decision for a company whose trademark has been its century-old tradition of showcasing elephants, company President Kenneth Feld told the Associated Press. But “anti-circus” and “anti-elephant” ordinances throughout the country made touring with elephants too expensive. The company has three shows that visit 115 cities each year, and fighting legislation in every jurisdiction was not worth the cost. Constantly changing regulations were also an obstacle for show scheduling.

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

Meanwhile, an increased understanding about how life in captivity harms the animals may be causing the aversion to elephant shows, experts say.

“The growing public outcry is due to awareness about how the needs of elephants are not met in captivity,” says Mary Beth Ikard of The Elephant Sanctuary. “We have served 24 elephants at our sanctuary, many of which are former circus elephants, and every day we see the sad issues they have to confront. They have arrived with tuberculosis, arthritis, and other problems.”

Furthermore, some experts say that a special affinity with elephants may be part of the reason these animals are getting so much attention.

“Elephants are the most charismatic animals we see performing. People feel an affinity with elephants, they live almost as long as humans and they show similar emotions,” says Carol Bradley, an investigative reporter who wrote the book "Last Chain on Billie" about an elephant rescued from a circus.

“You don’t find a lot of people who don’t like elephants. Family is so important to elephants. Elephants stay in a family group their whole lives. They caress the bones of dead family members. They are highly intelligent, they recognize themselves. These are things people can really relate with,” says  Elephant Sanctuary Director Whittaker.

Ms. Bradley points out that similar feelings towards other mammals in captivity also have caused problems for companies.

“Look at the debacle at Sea World,” Bradley says. “Their stock is plummeting. There are just so many parallels with whales and dolphins.”

Feld Entertainment currently owns 43 elephants, 29 of which will go to live at the 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation. Thirteen elephants will continue to tour with the circus before they retire to the center in 2018, and one elephant is on breeding loan at the Fort Worth Zoo.

The circus will continue to use other animals, including a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders, but experts say they hope the elephants’ retirement will set a precedent for other companies and show the circus it can be profitable without animal shows. Circuses such as Cirque de Soleil and the Big Apple Circus have found a robust following without any acts featuring wild animals.

“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,” says Bradley.

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

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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