Ringling Bros. Circus to Remove Elephant Act by 2018

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The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus performed in Washington, DC.

Photographer: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the 145-year-old circus, will remove elephants from its acts to focus on conservation programs, following public scrutiny of the treatment of animals used by companies as performers.

The circus, operated by the Feld Family, owners of closely held Feld Entertainment Inc., will move 13 Asian elephants now with three traveling shows to its conservation center in Florida by 2018, according to a company statement. There, they’ll join the rest of the Ringling Bros. herd of more than 40 elephants.

Ringling Bros. and SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. are facing a public backlash over allegations of poor treatment of animals. SeaWorld saw theme-park attendance drop after a 2013 documentary called “Blackfish” argued that performing killer whales shouldn’t be kept in captivity. Ringling, which had been known for walking its pachyderms down public streets to the delight of some spectators, has also attracted protesters in recent years over its handling of elephants.

A March 2013 blog post by PETA, the animal-rights group, claimed that behind the scenes trainers were tying baby elephants to the ground and gouging them with steel-tipped bullhooks. A PETA video, narrated by actor Alec Baldwin, showed trainers beating and tormenting the animals.

Stephen Payne, a spokesman for the company, said protests and lawsuits by animal activists were a “nuisance” but not the deciding factor in ending the elephant shows. A greater problem was that some cities, such as Los Angeles and Oakland, California, have made it more difficult to use elephants by banning the tools used to control them.

Cure Diseases

“The Feld family agonized over this,” Payne said. “A business that doesn’t listen to its customers isn’t in business for very long.”

The circus company plans to focus on its Asian elephant conservation programs, both in North America and through its partnership with Sri Lanka, according to the statement. Ringling will also continue to work with other conservation groups to preserve the species, the company said.

Ringling Bros. has already placed elephants at eight zoos, either on loan or through donations. Meanwhile, the company will continue to work with the Smithsonian’s research lab, which is seeking to find a cure for diseases that impact juvenile elephants.

Ringling said it will continue to feature other animal performers, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels.

SeaWorld Investments

The “Blackfish” movie also affected SeaWorld’s marketing agreements with companies including Southwest Airlines Co., and also saw entertainers such as Willie Nelson cancel performances and park appearances. SeaWorld stock tumbled 38 percent last year.

SeaWorld is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade and expand its killer whale habitats, according to Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for the company.

“We believe the public understands and values our continuing role not just as a place where they can engage with marine life, but be inspired to learn more about these remarkable animals and help our efforts to conserve them,” he said.