Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has announced their 11 remaining touring elephants will be retiring in May. Although the circus originally planned to retire the elephants in 2018, the animals will be transferred to the Center for Elephant Conservation within the next three months.
Historically, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus received stark criticism for their treatment of performing animals, including elephants. In a written statement, which was published by the Associated Press, Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle said the company’s decision to retire the elephants early proves they are committed to making a positive change.
“Ringling had been one of the biggest defenders of this kind of archaic animal exploitation, and the imminent end of its traveling elephant acts signaled that even one of the most tough-minded and hardened animal-use companies now recognized that the world is changing and it had to adapt.”
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was founded by Phineas Taylor Barnum and James Bailey, who were fierce competitors throughout the mid-1800s.
A native of Bethel, Connecticut, P.T. Barnum debuted his first exhibition in New York City in 1834. Focusing on oddities, the showman’s exhibitions included hoax objects, including a “mermaid” corpse, and human curiosities, including giants, midgets, and siamese twins.
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Biography explains that Barnum gained nationwide attention with his purchase of Scrudder’s American Museum in 1841. Like his traveling exhibitions, the museum displayed an eclectic mix of more than 500,000 oddities from around the world.
Although the authenticity of many of the oddities was questionable, P.T. Barnum’s museum remained a popular destination until it burned to the ground in 1868.
The showman suffered a devastating loss. However, he founded P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus two years later. In 1874, the traveling exhibition, which was dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth,” became a permanent fixture at the Hippodrome.
Although the men were rivals, P.T. Barnum joined forces with ringmaster James Anthony Bailey in 1881. One year later, the men purchased their first elephant, who was named “Jumbo.”
In 1907, Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth was bought by the Ringling brothers, who at the time were Barnum & Bailey’s biggest rival. Although the two circuses were run separately for 12 years, in 1919, the shows merged to become Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Inc.
Although Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus remains one of the largest and most popular circuses in the world, the company has faced stark criticism from animal rights activists.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals lists several critical issues with the circus’ treatment of their performing elephants.
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According to the organization’s official website, the “Greatest Show on Earth” separates young elephants from their mothers before they turn 2-years-old. According to PETA, this causes the elephants great distress, as young elephants spend at least 13 years with their mothers in the wild.
PETA also criticizes the elephants’ subpar living conditions.
“Baby elephants are forced to stand on a concrete floor for about 23 hours a day for up to six months, unable to lie down or even turn around… When they aren’t performing, elephants are confined… elephants travel in boxcars… for up to 100 hours straight.”
The organization further criticizes Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for their methods of training elephants, which include the use of bullhooks, electric prods, and ropes.
In an effort to combat the negative publicity and promote elephant conservation, the circus opened the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995. In March 2015, the circus’ parent company, Feld Entertainment, Inc., announced plans to “remove Asian elephants from their traveling circus performances” by 2018.
Less than one year later, Feld Entertainment, Inc. announced they will be retiring their remaining 11 elephants earlier than expected. As discussed in the official announcement, the animals will be moved to the Center for Elephant Conservation in May.
Ringling Bros. Producer and Feld Entertainment Executive Vice President Alana Feld said the company’s “commitment to save the majestic Asian elephant will continue through [their] breeding program, research and conservation efforts.”
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ decision to retire their 11 remaining elephants early will certainly please animal rights activists and animal lovers around the world.