Ringling Bros. Folds Up the Big Top

In a surprise move, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced in January that it is closing down, effective May 2017, after 146 years in operation. In explaining the decision, Chief Operating Officer Juliette Feld of Feld Entertainment Inc.—owner of the circus for the past 50 years—cited ”a downward trend in attendance over 10 years” as the public’s taste in entertainment changed.

With its charismatic ringmasters, colorful clowns, and high-flying acrobats, Ringling Bros. was renowned for its showmanship. But behind the scenes, the circus was anything but entertaining for the Asian elephants, lions, tigers, and other exotic animals it confined and carted from town to town. AWI spent years raising awareness of the circus’s cruel treatment of elephants, and joined others in filing suit against Feld Entertainment in 2000. “There is no question,” said AWI counsel Stephen Neal Jr., “that the closing of the circus is due in large part to the publication of evidence of the circus’s cruelty to animals [resulting from the] litigation.”

Amidst mounting public pressure and costs, Feld Entertainment announced in March 2015 that it would remove elephants from the show and move them to its “Center for Elephant Conservation” in Florida. (See AWI Quarterly, spring 2015.) Ultimately, the elephants would leave the arena in May 2016.

Despite its lofty name, the Florida facility isn’t, unfortunately, a proper sanctuary—observers in the past have noted poor treatment of elephants there, including the use of bullhooks and electric prods on them and prolonged, chained confinement on concrete floors. We hope it will at least be preferable to life on the road and the brutal training they endured to force them into performing. We hope further that the remaining circus animals will end up in bona fide sanctuaries, where they can enjoy a more natural existence. Although AWI celebrates this victory, we will continue our efforts to expose the inhumane treatment of animals held by circuses around the world.