Circus elephants will no longer sadden audiences at Ringling Bros. shows

A relic of the past.
A relic of the past.
Image: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
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This post has been updated with a statement from a company spokesman.

The “Greatest Show on Earth” will no longer include elephants. The iconic American institution Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has said it will eliminate its famous elephant act by 2018. The decision comes amid public concern about animal mistreatment, the Associated Press reported, but Ringling will continue to use other animals.

Elephants have been part of Ringling circus acts for more than a century, but as audiences grew uncomfortable with performances of captive animals and local authorities across the country have passed regulations restricting them, Ringling’s parent company Feld Entertainment decided to phase out the 13 elephants it uses in the circus ring.

“This was a decision long time coming—it is in the best interest of the company and of the elephants,” a spokesman for Feld, Stephen Payne, tells Quartz. With local legislation prohibiting elephant acts making the traveling show more complicated, Payne said, the decision made sense. “We’re in the live family entertainment business, not in the business of fighting city hall.”

The elephants will now live at the company’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, and will join the 29 animals already there. Feld has the largest herd of Asian elephants on the continent, and it has said it is committed to preserving the species. The process will take three years, Payne said, because the company needs to prepare the Florida preservation center to accommodate the elephants: “This is not a flip of a switch.”

The circus has been in hot water over its treatment of the animals many times over the years. Mother Jones conducted a heart-breaking year-long investigation detailing abuses at the circus in 2011. It showed that:

“Ringling elephants spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat of the bullhook, or ankus—the menacing tool used to control elephants. They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity.”

In 2014, however, the company won a combined $25 million in settlements from several animal-rights groups after 14 years of fighting over allegations of mistreatment in the courtroom. It turned out the activists had paid a former circus employee $200,000 to make the allegations of elephant abuse.

Elephant acts are a mainstay of the traditional circus, mythologized as long-suffering and abused performers in movies such as the 1941 Disney film Dumbo, or the 2011 move, based on a bestselling novel, Water for Elephants. But a number of countries have banned animal performances, including Mexico, and some American cities have outlawed elephant acts specifically. This week, Britain’s Prince William got himself into trouble when he visited an elephant sanctuary in China: The British media was quick to point out that the facility forces elephants to perform for tourists.

Circuses have successfully performed without animal acts, most notably the Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil (video). Perhaps human performances are the way forward for the American circus.