The Elephant Finally Gets Political

A long-running liberation campaign is releasing Ringling Bros.' famous elephants from their servitude.
Photographer: Doug Mill/Associated Press

For pachyderms, with their famously long memories and legendary mourning rituals and human-like family bonds, liberation has taken a very long time. 

"Seeing the elephant" is an old American phrase, used in the days of the Gold Rush and the Oregon Trail. It denotes emotion and high excitement; that’s why it became slang for a trip to brothel or the saloon. Back then, after all, the traveling circus was the way to see the world: how else could you glimpse, or touch, the wide earth’s most exotic animals? The Ringling Brothers Circus, founded in 1884, brought ladies, freaks, acrobats, and animals to a fairground near you: “Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome.” In 1919, it merged to become Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus—"the greatest show on earth." We’ve all seen the beautiful vintage posters of handlers atop elephants, noble mammals in a procession line. But times have changed. Lithographs became Viewfinders became Instagram, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has raised consciousness, and risen-up. Like Depression-era dance marathons, or walking competitions, what charmed and entranced generations past no longer charms us. On Thursday morning, the Associated Press reported that the legendary Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is phasing elephants out of its performances. Alana Feld, an executive at Feld Entertainment, the family company that operates the circus, told the AP, “There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers. A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”

Feld Entertainment owns the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America: 43 of them. Twenty-nine live today at the company's Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, and 13 will tour the country with the circus in these final next three years. The remaining elephant is on loan—a "breeding loan"—to the Fort Worth Zoo.

NUEVO LEON, MEXICO - JUNE 09: Activists protest against animals in circuses in front of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus on June 09, 2012 in Nuevo Leon, Mexico. These campaigns are held by members of Animal Rights groups like PETA and AnimaNaturalis. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Photographer: Hans-Maximo Musielik/LatinContent/Getty Images

In 2000, the ASCPA and other animal rights groups, including the Humane Society and the Animal Welfare Institute, sued Feld Entertainment for mistreating the Asian elephants that perform in its circus. Eventually case was dismissed (although an appellate court allowed a former elephant handler involved in the suit pursue a case of emotional injury based on the circus's treatment of the elephants), but the circus sued the animal-rights groups, in turn, for, according to NBC, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and violation of federal racketeering laws through unfounded litigation. In 2012, the ASPCA removed itself from the litigation by paying Feld a $9.3 million settlement. Kenneth Feld, the company president, decried the original suit. He said, days before the dawn of 2013, "Animal activists have been attacking our family, our company, and our employees for decades because they oppose animals in circuses."

For the circus, it may have been the law, and not the evolution of moral sentiment, that finally forced the change. Kenneth Feld now tells the AP that the circus has been faced with "anti-circus" and "anti-elephant" regulation in a number of the 115 cities its three shows visit each year. Fighting legislation is pricy, Feld said; by pulling out of those fights, the financial resources "can be put towards the elephants." (It costs about $65,000 yearly, according to the AP, to care for each.)

The circus’s move also follows a dramatic public relations debacle at Sea World over the conditions of captivity of the aquatic theme park’s killer whales. A 2013 documentary called “Blackfish” alleged abuse of the performing animals. In the fallout of the film, Sea World suffered a decline in attendance, a lawsuit from shareholders, the resignation of a CEO, and a plunge in stock. Feld would likely want to avoid a similar situation. 

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus lit up Madison Square Garden in 1949.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus lit up Madison Square Garden in 1949.
Photographer: Matty Zimmerman/AP

Jessica Johnson, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told the BBC that elephants suffer awfully in circus conditions. "Many of the elephants are painfully arthritic, and many have tuberculosis, so their retirement day needs to come now,” she said. Mother Jones published an investigation in 2011 that detailed some of this suffering. It called the Ringling circus "the cruelest show on earth." Those circus elephants, the reporter Deborah Nelson wrote, are subject to electric shocks, whippings, and bullhooks, which slice through their skin. They “spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat.”

In the background to this is a significant rise in political awareness over the elephant. In February, 2014, Chelsea Clinton sat at the posh ABC Carpet & Home department store by Union Square, and spoke to a wealthy-looking crowd sporting artisanal textiles about the plight of the African elephant.

Clinton and her mother, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had just published an op-ed in the Financial Times about the ivory trade, the multi-billion-dollar business that has, they wrote, attracted al-Shabaab from Somalia, the Janjaweed from Sudan, the Lord’s Resistance Army in east Africa. That month, the White House announced a ban on new commercial ivory sales, and the UK government hosted an international conference on the illegal wildlife trade.

Just this week, Prince William paid a visit to China, and ended his tour with a visit to a Yunnan reserve, to see the country's last elephant population. The prince, whose father, Prince Charles, has also joined the cause, was photographed feeding carrots to a rescue elephant named Ran Ran. "You're going to get indigestion," the prince reportedly told the elephant. 

In recent years, Feld has moved into hot rods and monster trucks, perhaps a more humane kind of live entertainment. And the circus isn’t eliminating animals entirely from its acts—at least not yet. Just this year, the Ringling show added a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders to the mix.

Still, circus elephants will always have their place in politics:



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