Animal-welfare advocates across the country are celebrating a recent announcement from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. According to the Associated Press, the iconic American show will cease all elephant acts after 2018.
The decision was made in response to a number of interlocking factors—chief among them the tide of public opinion, which has turned against the centuries-old tradition of captive-animal performance. Nearly two decades worth of reports documenting mistreatment of animal charges and substandard husbandry practices have also inspired local and state regulations, making it more and more difficult for Ringling Bros. and its contemporaries to find accommodating locales for their traveling shows.
“This was a decision long time coming—it is in the best interest of the company and of the elephants,” said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company, in an interview with Quartz. “We’re in the live family entertainment business, not in the business of fighting city hall.”
While this is surely good news for elephant-lovers, the elephants themselves, and, indeed, anyone concerned with the general welfare of captive animals in the US, the retirement of Ringling’s herd is a small dressing for a grievously deep wound. Though elephants are certainly one of the more visible victims of circus abuse—and more frequently mistreated than any other species in that setting, according to reports—Ringling shows feature a veritable menagerie of creatures, large and small, none of which are immune to the systemic mistreatment and neglect that have plagued the industry for years.
According to a report compiled by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Feld Entertainment was ordered to pay $270,000 by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of “the largest civil penalty ever assessed against an exhibitor under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).” These violations occurred between June 2007 and Aug. 2011—though PETA reports incidents occurring as far back as 1994—and affected a wide range of species: dogs, tigers, zebras, even a hippopotamus, who, according a USDA inspector in 1996, was too wide to fit into his shallow pool.
That same 1996 citation found that primates, inherently social animals, were housed individually by Ringling caretakers. What’s more, these cages lacked any sort of environmental enrichment, which primatologists agree is necessary to a happy ape’s psyche (and can be something as simple and affordable as a tire).
Three years prior, the USDA had cited Ringling for its inadequate housing for performing dogs. Carriers were “too small for most dogs to stand, sit, lie, and turn about freely.” Similar citations were issued against the show’s substandard bear enclosures.
In 2000, two of Ringling’s Bengal tigers injured themselves in separate escape attempts when temperatures in their inadequately ventilated cages rose “to a point of immediate danger to the animals.” According to PETA, “One tiger tore at the cage, tearing the track from the door and breaking off a tooth. A tiger in another enclosure suffered an injury above the eye caused by the same faulty vent-door problem.” Despite a USDA citation issued in July 2000, specifically addressing ventilation and structural issues in big-cat enclosures, a formal investigation had to be launched in 2004 into the death of a two-year-old male lion named Clyde. “According to a former Ringling employee, Clyde died after traveling through the intense heat of the Mojave desert in a poorly ventilated car,” PETA reports, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Successful escapes are also a problem. In 2001, the city of San José, California, fined Ringling $200 for “allowing a yak to run at large and cause a public nuisance.” A zebra named Lima escaped a show in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2010, evading capture for more than 40 minutes. He was subsequently euthanized for injuries sustained on the run. This was plucky Lima’s final escape—in 2008, he and two others, Mali and Giza, escaped a show in downtown Baltimore, and another in Colorado a year before.
In 2010, the USDA cited Ringling for “failure to maintain an adequate program of veterinary care,” as a considerable amount of its pharmaceutical stock was either expired or had no expiration date listed. And in 1999, when a horse collapsed and died on a march in Norfolk, Virginia, no veterinarian was on hand to administer care. This, despite claims at the time that Ringling’s veterinary staff was available to animals 24 hours a day.
Other egregious veterinary failures include the death of 12-year-old sea lion, Gypsy, caught in the wild, who was found dead in her transport container upon arriving to a site in Moline, Illinois, in 1998. In 2006, says PETA, “the USDA cited Ringling for failure to provide veterinary care to a camel with two actively bleeding wounds.”
Then, of course, there are the countless incidents of outright, unapologetic cruelty. A 2009 investigation by PETA into Ringling’s animal-keeping practices included video footage of a tiger trainer savagely beating his charges during a dress rehearsal. Three years prior, two former Ringling employees provided PETA with signed statements recounting “routine abuse of animals.” According to the pair, “a horse was whipped with the metal snap on a lead for 10 minutes and was later found to have a broken tooth,” and “a miniature horse was knocked senseless after he was repeatedly slugged in the face with such force that the sound of the handler’s fist hitting the horse’s face could be heard 20 feet away.”
In 1998, an adult Bengal tiger named Arnie was shot to death in his cage by an angry trainer. The USDA issued a letter of warning in response. These incidents are all in addition to a depressingly large number of eye-witness accounts and video footage (warning: disturbing content) confirming absolutely barbaric treatment of Ringling’s soon-to-be-retired elephants, who have been regularly subjected to physical and psychological abuse by training staff.
“At least 30 elephants, including four babies, have died since 1992,” according to PETA.
While animal-welfare advocates may have won a decisive battle in the war against animal abuse in circuses, Ringling’s decision to retire its elephants should by no means suffice as penance for its decades of documented failure to comply with humane-treatment laws, across species. The only real solution to widespread mistreatment of circus animals is the summary banning of captive-animal performance nationwide, if not internationally. As Quartz’s Hanna Kozlowska notes, “Circuses have successfully performed without animal acts, most notably the Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil (video).” And this is, perhaps, the only manner in which an “ethical circus” can exist. Certainly, in an increasingly ethically-minded society, at least when it comes to animal welfare, it is the only way for a circus to survive.