In the 133 years since P.T. Barnum bought his first one, no animal has been so closely identified with the circus as the elephant, starring under the big tents, adorning posters and ritually announcing the circus’ arrival with a gawk-worthy parade into town — in the case of New York, through the Midtown Tunnel.
But after decades of pressure by animal rights activists who say that the giant creatures are treated cruelly, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey announced Thursday that its three circus companies that still tour the country, performing 1,000 shows a year, would phase out elephant acts, retiring all of the animals by 2018.
“It’s pretty remarkable, since they’ve been fighting this fight for so long, and for over a century the icon of the American circus was the elephant,” said Matthew Wittmann, a historian of circuses who has advocated ending the use of elephants. “The view Ringling always propagated was that you can’t have the circus without the elephants, but the global success of Cirque du Soleil shows that you don’t need to have animals of any kind to have a circus.”
The debate over circus elephants has been framed in moral terms, but both sides described Ringling’s move as fundamentally economic.
“The biggest issue is, there’s been a lot of legislation in different cities and different municipalities,” regulating the use and treatment of animals, said Kenneth Feld, president of Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company. Each elephant costs $65,000 a year to maintain, he said.
Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said people have turned against animal acts as they learn more about the animals and how they are treated. “These are complex, intelligent animals, and this is a lousy, lousy, dirty, cruel business, and people see that,” she said. “This was purely a business decision.”
Ringling owns 43 elephants, ranging in age from under 2 to 69; it has not acquired any new elephants from other sources in decades, but it has a breeding program at its conservation center in Florida. The elephants on tour will join other elephants at the Florida center.
Source: The New York Times