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End Of An Era: How Ringling Bros. Finally Came Around To Ending Its 145-Year-Old Elephant Act

CREDIT: AP/RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY
CREDIT: AP/RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY

Ending a 145 year run, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is eliminating elephant acts from its traveling circuses. Elephant acts will be phased out by 2018.

Feld Entertainment Inc., which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, heralded this change with a press release that does not even include the word “elephant” in the title. In an interview with the Associated Press, Alana Feld, Feld’s executive vice president, cited changing public opinion as a primary reason for the announcement: “There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.” And Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, referenced “anti-circus” and “anti-elephant” legislation that would be costly to battle in every jurisdiction the circus visits, seeing as they hit 115 cities each year.

Last spring, the Los Angeles City Council banned traveling circuses from using bullhooks and other implements “designed to inflict pain.” At the time, Stephen Payne, vice president of Feld corporate communications, said, “We’re not going to come to L.A. without our elephants. The Asian elephant has been a symbol of Ringling Bros. for 144 years. We cannot bring them without using USDA-approved husbandry tools.” Later that year, Oakland followed suit.

“This is a really big deal,” said Susan Nance, author of Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus, by phone. “I am a little bit surprised. The thing that makes Ringling unique, in the industry — in terms of entertainment, circuses, live, traveling shows at all, really — is they have this elephant to sell. They had a herd of elephants. That was so integral to their brand, being the last big American-style circus. I thought they’d be stubborn forever.”

Elephants walk through the streets of Manhattan on their way to Madison Square Garden in New York, Wednesday, March 19, 2008. The annual parade of elephants announces the arrival of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
Elephants walk through the streets of Manhattan on their way to Madison Square Garden in New York, Wednesday, March 19, 2008. The annual parade of elephants announces the arrival of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

The elephant is to Ringling what Mickey Mouse is to Disney. Elephants appear on all the posters and promotional materials; they star in the TV spots. The Elephant Walk famously marches the animals through the streets to announce the circus’ arrival; in D.C., they walk from the Capitol Building to the Verizon Center. (The District’s annual “pachyderm parade” was canceled last year “due to a change in schedule,” a harbinger of today’s announcement.) “They’re going to have to reinvent themselves,” said Nance. “I’m not sure what they’re going to do.”

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But maybe reinvention is exactly what the circus needs. Bad press focusing on the circus’ animal abuse, particularly the plight of elephants, has been piling up for years. Multiple elephant deaths — Kenny, a 3-year-old, and Benjamin, age 4 — in the 1990s sparked lawsuits and outrage. A 2001 Salon story, “The Greatest Vendetta On Earth,” detailed how Feld, the corporation that owns Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey, employed former CIA covert operations head Clair George to oversee a multimillion-dollar spying operation on animals rights groups. “George’s main target was People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and similar groups that had annoyed Feld with charges that the Ringling Bros.’ elephants were badly cared for.” Mother Jones came out with a feature in 2011 describing and calling the whole Ringling enterprise “The Cruelest Show on Earth” (clearly not the most original headline construction), the result of a yearlong investigation into the way Ringling Bros. mistreats its elephants.

The circus life is inherently inhumane for wild animals.

“The public just doesn’t know what goes on behind the scenes,” said Catherine Doyle, director of science, research and advocacy for PAWS, the Performing Animal Welfare Society. “Elephants are chained for 17 to 18 hours a day on average, or even longer when they’re traveling. They’re controlled using bullhooks. The circus life is inherently inhumane for wild animals. It’s completely unnatural, and it can never begin to meet their needs…It’s just wrong to abuse animals in the name of entertainment.”

Wrong, and expensive. It is not exactly cheap to travel across the country with a group of elephants in tow. “What they were trying to do is the kind of thing that zoos do in a stationary location,” said Nance. “It’s always been very expensive for circus.” Even in the 19th and 20th century, “there were debates [internally] about whether or not they earned more from elephants than they paid for them.”

Dozens of circuses have cut the elephant acts from their shows over the past couple of decades, Nance said, including the Big Apple Circus. And even in the 1790s, “there have always been people who disapproved of this,” said Nance. Horror stories about elephant abuse at the circus are almost as old as circuses themselves. “Trainers 110 years ago [were] saying, ‘I beat the crap out of my elephants all the time because that’s what they deserve.’… Groups of men with boards and pitchforks and elephant hooks, that was a normal part of the procedure.”

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After Dumbo came out in 1941, public opinion started to sway against elephants in circuses. And 20 years after Dumbo, “two things happened in parallel” that sparked widespread human compassion for elephants, said Nance: the development of the wildlife documentary and research on elephant behavior and psychology. “Scientists started to demonstrate things that a lot of people who work with elephants have always known: elephants have a big emotional range, they have long memories. Family relationships are very important to them. They’re like us, in a lot of ways. And when the public started to see elephants in those contexts — playing with other elephants in the sun in Africa on TV — the idea of seeing an elephant chained to the floor of a rail car in Philadelphia and Seattle starts to seem really unsympathetic.”

“Elephants are highly intelligent,” said Doyle. “They’re empathetic. Elephants are known to help other elephants who are injured and who are ill. Elephants are known to mourn their dead. And elephants are self-aware. That means, in captivity, elephants are predisposed to suffer, because they’re conscious of their surroundings, of themselves. Just like we would be.”

The minority opinion that elephants didn’t belong in circuses started to tip over into the majority in the 1960s and ’70s, picking up again in the 1990s, which was “an active time for all sorts of activism in the name of animals.” In the early-to-mid 2000s, whistleblowers got new weapons in their arsenal with the advent of social media, handheld video cameras, and recording devices on cell phones. The footage that gets out of the most egregious abuses “is so graphic,” said Nance. “The earlier sources I had to deal with, they’re textual. Nowadays, you go on YouTube, and there’s lots of video footage of people doing this kind of stuff, and that’s harder to take.”

In this Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015 photo, 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. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara
In this Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015 photo, 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. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

It seems clearer than ever that elephants are not worth the cost: not the financial cost, and certainly not the PR cost. “Maybe ticket sales have been dropping a little bit too because a lot of parents just aren’t comfortable taking their kids to this kind of show anymore,” said Nance. “And that’s a problem, because Ringling’s brand is wholesomeness and fun, and they don’t want to be associated with the idea of animal cruelty.” Parents of young children today came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, as awareness about animal cruelty and wildlife preservation spread throughout the public consciousness. “They’ve always lived with groups like PETA publicly criticizing circuses. So for them, this is the norm.”

This age group has a fundamentally different mentality about consumable goods, even entertainment, than the generation that came before. Young people want to know that their food is organic and locally grown, that their t-shirts were ethically produced; they track carbon footprints, environmental impact. This is a generation that wants a story with every item. “That’s something you see in many different kinds of consumer practices,” said Nance. “People want to say, ‘it’s not just about my personal experience, right now, this minute. I want to know what went into this behind the scenes. What didn’t I see?’” Naturally, this sentiment extends beyond inanimate objects; it’s not too surprising that this crowd isn’t gung ho about elephants in circuses.

Elephants from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in downtown Cleveland, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005. CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Dejak
Elephants from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in downtown Cleveland, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005. CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

Tickets to the circus range in price from about 20 bucks for the cheap seats to well over $100 to get close to the action. For a family of four with more entertainment options than ever, it would be less expensive to do almost anything else: dinner at a restaurant, a movie in a theater, pizza and Netflix at home. Kids who want their animal fix can go to the zoo, many of which have free admission.

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Interestingly enough, Nance says, elephant treatment has actually gotten “a little bit” better over the years, not worse. “Animal trainers in the 19th century were really sort of much-feared characters in the circus crowd. There’s a lot of macho, a lot of sexism, and that translated into how animals were treated.” The “tricks” elephants were required to perform in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were much more taxing: standing on their heads, having a tiger ride on their backs. “The training involved a lot of physical strength and violence.”

But “as the 20th century progressed, the style of tricks people were asking elephants to do became less acrobatic and less extreme.” Most modern elephant tricks only used one or two animals, typically walking in a circle during intermission with a child perched on their back. And new technologies, like electric fences (the kind many people use to train dogs to stay in the backyard) have replaced more barbaric, outdated tools. “50 years ago, they would have been chained inside a rail car” instead of kept in place with an electric fence, said Nance.

Still, there is no technological advancement, no amount of kindness on the part of a trainer, than can make a circus a healthy place for an elephant to be. “Ultimately, when elephants become adults, like adults of any species, they start to assert themselves. It’s something that is in us as an evolutionary advantage. So it becomes very difficult to meet the needs of adult elephants,” said Nance.

This is not the moment to have an elephant performing tricks when people are increasingly seeing them as an endangered species.

And even if it were feasible, financially and ethically, to keep elephants in the circus, it might soon become impossible to find any elephants to bring into the circus at all. “The elephant populations globally are really plummeting right now, especially because of the ivory trade,” said Nance. “So maybe it seems like this is not the moment to have an elephant performing tricks when people are increasingly seeing them as an endangered species. People see them slipping away from us, about to disappear.

So is the circus, as an institution, fundamentally at odds with modern culture? “The circuses, they’re real survivors,” said Nance. “They retool constantly. They managed to cope with cinema and television and the dawn of the internet. The circus isn’t going anywhere. It’ll go on, but it will take on a different shape. And this is why it’s such an amazing kind of entertainment, because it’s so adaptable.” She anticipates a future circus looking more like Cirque du Soleil, reliant on feats of human strength and flexibility. More clowning, acrobats, and “humans taking the risks,” not animals.

And though it feels to most Americans that the elephant and the circus are inextricably linked, historically, that’s not actually the case. “You look at the global history of circuses, and that’s what they are for most of human history: acrobats, riding on horses, some trained dogs,” said Nance. “There was the odd elephant on display in Ancient Rome, but by and large, it’s an American innovation. I feel like it’s a window that opened in the early 19th century and now it’s closing. We had 225 years.”

“Ringling is like McDonalds,” she said. “If they make a change, it shapes the whole industry.”