Elephants have been part of the Ringling Bros. circus for 145 years. On Sunday, they performed their final show and, like most retired folks, are headed to Florida to live out the rest of their days off-stage.
Their history in the circus goes back to the early 1800s, when Hackaliah Bailey added one named “Old Bet” to his circus. By the end of the century, P.T. Barnum added the creatures to “The Greatest Show on Earth.” In those days, elephants were trained to “play baseball, ride bicycles, play musical instruments, wear wedding dresses or dress in mourning clothes,” the Associated Press reported.
But 2016 is a very different world. According to Ronald B. Tobias, the author of the 2013 book Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America, people don’t see elephants as circus performers anymore.
“(They’re) sentient animals that are capable of a full range of human emotions.”
And so at a performance in Providence, Rhode Island, on Sunday, ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson introduced the elephants for the last time, the Washington Post reported. Six of them dazzled audiences for the last time after spending the last two-and-a-half years on tour with Ringling Bros. traveling 36,000 miles, for 900 performances in 80 cities.
They are the end in a long line of elephants who’ve done the same routines and performed for delighted audiences for nearly two centuries. For Iverson, the final show was emotional. He called the elephants members of the circus family and thanked them for their service.
“We love our girls. Thank you so much for so many years of joy. That’s history tonight there, ladies and gentlemen, true American icons.”
The girls showed off the usual tricks. They entered the ring holding each other’s tails, danced and spun, stood on pedestals, stood on each other and their own heads, and sat on their hind legs. Then they left the ring, never to return again.
Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros., will now prepare for a show without them. It will be called “Out of this World” and take place in outer space with a “good vs. evil” storyline — the first time the show has featured a plot — and new technology.
Meanwhile, the retired elephants will go to Florida and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation. They’ll join 11 fellow performers in a herd of 29 and will be studied by researchers, academics, and conservationists to both learn how to re-populate the Asian species and figure out how the animals are so resistant to cancer in hopes of developing treatments for people.
Tobias said this move is evidence of how people’s attitudes have changed since the 19th century. They’d rather see elephants in their natural habitat, than a Ringling Bros. circus.
“I think people will get a lot more satisfaction out of elephants living their real lives than to see them performing as clowns. It’s kind of a new age in our understanding and sympathy and empathy toward elephants.”
There evidently hasn’t been much sympathy for the animals over the years. Various complaints from animal rights activists and legal challenges over the years have exposed deaths, disease in captivity, the separation of babies from mothers, and lengthy periods of time spent in chains.
Activists were also accused of lying about mistreatment, however, and were ordered to pay a $16 million settlement as a result. They are considering the animals’ retirement a victory, including Elinor Molgebott with the Humane Society of New York, according to CBS News.
“It’s an end of an era that should have ended a long, long time ago. This is so unnatural for them. They shouldn’t be subject to abuse.”
Regardless, Feld announced that they would retire their elephants from Ringling Bros. by 2018 but have taken them out of the ring 18 months earlier. Company president Kenneth Feld said the move was not a reaction to “our critics. We’re creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant.”
The controversy likely won’t end, however. The Florida center has a breeding program, and the Humane Society wants that program to end and the elephants to retire in one of two sanctuaries instead. And Ringling Bros. is keeping other animals in its shows, including lions, tigers, horses, dogs, pigs, and kangaroos.
[Photo by Bill Sikes/AP Images]