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Why Ringling’s Losing the Elephants

Ringling Brothers recognized that the country’s mood shift meant that the circus couldn’t do business as usual
relates to Why Ringling’s Losing the Elephants
Photo illustration: 731; Photographers: Superstock; Getty Images

Circuses and elephants have been inseparable in the American imagination for nearly 150 years. Together they contributed a word to the English language—jumbo, now synonymous with anything big, potentially unwieldy, perhaps dangerous, but with some possibly gigantic payoff. Jumbo was an enormous African elephant that P.T. Barnum bought from the London Zoo in 1882 and shipped to the U.S. to become the star of his circus. America became obsessed with Jumbo, a behemoth who was paraded out for audiences willing to pay for the amusement. After that, elephants became fixtures of any respectable American circus. Although Jumbo died in an 1885 railway accident, we continue to see his shadow in jumbo jets, Jumbotrons, and jumbo mortgages.

On Mar. 5, the historic association between circus and elephant was abrogated when the Feld family, which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus—the century-old merger of two rivals—announced that it would phase out its 13 performing Asiatic elephants by the beginning of 2018. They will join 28 pachyderms already resident at the Feld family-owned Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. The Felds, who bought the circus in 1967 before selling it to Mattel and buying it back in 1982, had withstood more than a decade of legal challenges from animal rights groups that leveled charges of cruelty against the circus and its trainers. Just last year, Feld Entertainment won a $15.75 million settlement with humane societies in a case involving a former elephant trainer described by a federal court as being “essentially a paid plaintiff” against the circus.