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
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.

Those legal wins weren’t enough to assure final victory. One of my first assignments as a journalist in New York City in the 1980s was to cover the amazing amble that the Ringling Bros. elephants took whenever they came to town: The public-relations stunt saw trainers escorting the huge animals from Madison Square Garden up the avenues of Manhattan to Central Park, where they’d pose for news photographers. Even though the skyscrapers towered over them, the elephants were the masters of the city. That appearance, though, was a deception. They were not even the masters of themselves.

What more and more people saw as the years went by—and as I jotted down in my notes that day—was the use of bullhooks. To keep the elephants marching in single file up to the park, trainers whacked them with the ugly metal talons. No elephant cried out when the bullhook was used, and at the time I wondered how much of the claw could actually get under the elephants’ thick skin. But it clearly kept them in line.

The Greatest Show on Earth was effectively worn down by a relatively low-key but tenacious campaign led in part by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which focused on getting city councils and municipalities to ban not just performing elephants but also the use of bullhooks—as Los Angeles and Oakland in California and Palm Beach and Miami Beach Counties in Florida did, all large markets. Furthermore, pieces in newspapers such as the Washington Post described how newborn elephants were allegedly maltreated. The fiction of human-animal harmony frittered away.

Explaining Feld’s decision on Mar. 5, spokesman Stephen Payne said the country had undergone a “mood shift” regarding the ethics of performing animals. The marketplace had changed as a result of transformed public opinion, and it was no longer sound business practice to go on with the show, at least as originally envisioned. (Feld, which is privately held, will not divulge the financial effect the controversy has had on its operations.) To accommodate the mood shift, Feld has wrapped itself in the banners of ecotourism, explaining how its conservation center, established in 1995, will allow visitors to see how well it cares for pachyderms in retirement.

That raises questions about the other great mammal performing in captivity today: the killer whale. SeaWorld, which owns three immense marine parks in the U.S. that feature orcas, has also suffered from the country’s philosophical shift. After a splashy initial public offering in April 2013, SeaWorld Entertainment’s stock shot up to almost $39. By Mar. 11, 2015, however, it was below $19.

SeaWorld continues to hold the line against critics and animal advocates, insisting that it’s in the best position to provide the medical care, sustenance, and quarters for the 30 killer whales it owns. Unlike with elephants, the public can’t easily spot the orca equivalent of bullhooks. But inhumane conditions do exist, as John Hargrove recounts in Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, a memoir of his two decades training orcas that I co-wrote. Among many examples: whales deprived of food for not being up to snuff; the orca equivalent of bulimia; potentially fatal dental problems caused by the claustrophobic nature of captivity. In SeaWorld, whales can’t behave as they do in the ocean—where they are in constant motion, even in their version of sleep. SeaWorld trains them to rest motionless.

Hargrove says SeaWorld’s orcas are victims of a monstrous strategy to maximize profits. The company uses the rigors of behavioral science to ensure seamless, audience-pleasing performances, then combines that with an artificial insemination program that is hellishly efficient. Everything is camouflaged in SeaWorld’s self-proclaimed mission to teach customers about conservation. In truth, what’s being maintained is the profit potential of SeaWorld’s stock of calves and frozen sperm, both produced with assembly-line efficiency. Each of the company’s orcas is estimated to be worth up to $15 million. Asked to describe how a human being might feel if he or she were a SeaWorld orca, Hargrove says, “alien abduction.”

SeaWorld is already suffering repercussions for its refusal to change. It has been sideswiped by Blackfish, a 2013 documentary about the February 2010 killing of a SeaWorld trainer by a troubled orca. The film started getting traction at about the time of SeaWorld’s IPO. The company’s market value eroded as more people saw depictions of the living conditions of the orcas and the heartrending separation of calves from their mothers. Blackfish was broadcast several times by CNN and was one of the most popular programs on that network in 2013 and 2014. SeaWorld continues to blame its predicament on “extreme animal rights activists”—a term it has used for decades. However, the ad hominem use of the word “extreme” to attack critics is less and less effective as more and more Americans share the tenets held by the activists.

Mood shifts in the market, encouraged by changing popular tastes as well as activism, may be the most effective way of forcing permanent corporate reforms, as it has in the palm oil industry. Ringling Bros. will still reap benefits in the next three years as audiences rush to see elephants performing before they head to Florida. It also won’t be giving up on its other four-legged performers soon. While the elephants were the showy centerpiece of the circus, says Feld spokesman Payne, other acts now provide much of the spectacle, including lions and tigers and camels. Animal advocates have more work to do.

Nevertheless, public demand for more enlightened treatment of captive animals is bound to grow stronger. With Feld as a model, SeaWorld has an opportunity to ease out of its difficulties and transform itself into the organization it has always claimed to be.

SeaWorld’s first orca was named Shamu. Even after she died in 1971, possibly of a bacterial infection, every killer whale that starred in the spectacles was called Shamu, creating a deathless brand. Shamu hasn’t become an adjective like Jumbo. But if SeaWorld doesn’t reform, it might popularize another, less flattering word. It will be known as the company that didn’t know what to do after it was blackfished.

Chua-Eoan is co-author of Beneath the Surface, which will be published by Palgrave MacMillan this month.

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