Ringling Brothers Will Drop Its Elephant Act

Be free, Dumbo, be free.  


It’s 2015, and compassionate human beings are beginning to feel queasy about watching charismatic megafauna poked and prodded to perform tricks for children’s amusement (see SeaWorld’s crashing attendance and financial troubles). So today, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is announcing it will retire its famous elephant act by 2018, according to the Associated Press“There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers,” an executive at Feld Entertainment, the circus’ parent company, told the wire service. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”

This is a win for animal-rights groups that have long accused Ringling of abusing its pachyderms. Much of the controversy has focused on the circus’ use of bullhooks, the long, steel-tipped rods that handlers wield to control and train the elephants, and look a bit like large fire pokers. PETA, for instance, has released undercover video of the animals seemingly being beaten with the instruments. Ringling and its supporters insist that the hooks don’t inflict pain thanks the the elephants’ tough skin, and are mostly used to nudge and guide the animals around. But some of the film can be a bit rough to watch.

In 2000, a former Ringling employee named Tom Rider, backed by animal activists, sued the circus alleging that its treatment of elephants violated the Endangered Species Act. But the case ended rather poorly when it finally went to trial nine years later. A federal judge concluded that Rider, who had received at least $190,000 in support from activist groups, was a “paid plaintiff” and ruled for the circus, which later brought a racketeering case against its accusers.1 By 2014, the Humane Society of the United States, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and other organizations ended up paying $25 million to Feld Entertainment in order to settle various claims.   

While their courtroom efforts can only be described as a misbegotten legal disaster, animal groups have been successfully pressing their case in public. Cities including Oakland, California, and Los Angeles have passed bans on the bullhooks, which Ringling said would prevent them from bringing the elephants—or the rest of the circus—to town. Feld Entertainment President Kenneth Feld told the AP that the proliferation of those laws was a major reason the company is dropping its elephant act:  

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.

Whether the bad publicity was cutting into Ringling’s profits is a bit difficult to say. Feld Entertainment was reporting record earnings and attendance as recently as 2012. But the private company is an entertainment conglomerate that also stages shows like Disney on Ice, Monster Jam truck rallies, and Marvel Universe Live! Whether bad press was leading to empty seats at the circus is a bit unclear. Though, it’s worth noting that its wildly successful competitor, Cirque du Soleil, is animal-free. It seems reasonable to guess that audience tastes have been changing.

So, what happens to the elephants once they’re no longer marching around in a circle? Feld Entertainment says that they’ll be moved to its Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, a 200-acre property where it already keeps some of its animals. I guess there are worse places to retire.

1In order to bring the suit, Rider was required by federal law to demonstrate that he had an emotional attachment to the elephants. The cash, suffice to say, raised questions about the purity of his intentions.