When Feld Entertainment announced in March that it was phasing performing elephants out of its Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, 2018 was given as the year by which all 13 Asian elephants traveling with three productions would be relocated to the company's Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. But as the newest tour, Circus EXTREME, rolls into Anaheim Friday for a two-week run, Feld officials are saying these may be the last shows when the elephants will be seen in the Honda Center.
Stephen Payne, Feld's vice president of corporate communications, explained in a telephone interview that 2018 was originally set as the deadline because it takes years for the tours to wind around the country and to build accommodations for the elephants in Polk City, Florida.
But Payne added that the pace of the conservation center expansion has gone more briskly than expected and that it will likely be ready for the newest elephant residents sooner rather than later. Since his company's circus comes to Anaheim every other year, by the time summer 2017 rolls around the elephants could conceivably be Florida retirees already.
Of course, that day cannot come soon enough for animal rights groups. After years of lawsuits, publicity stunts and pamphlet distributing outside the Honda Center all aimed at ending the elephant performances, advocates both welcomed Feld's March announcement and damned the company for not immediately rotating the beasts out of service.
Payne explained that's easier said than done and that bringing all 13 elephants home takes much planning, construction, food and water.
What folks in Anaheim may never see again are the elephants being paraded through the streets in broad daylight to both promote and get them from rail cars to the site of "The Greatest Show on Earth." Payne said he does not expect an animal walk when the show arrives from Ontario this week, and since this will likely be the last time elephants are here, you can probably say goodbye to that tradition as well.
Speaking of yearly events, Payne does expect the animal rights activists from groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to be back in front of the Honda Center entrances, "making claims we know not to be true."
Indeed, PETA has appropriated the familiar logo of the circus for its Ringling Bros. Beats Animals website ("The Saddest Show on Earth"). The site questions keeping elephants in rail boxcars for three more years and relies on such celebrities as Alec Baldwin and Cloris Leachman to make PETA's case.
Payne takes personal offense at people who have never cared for the circus animals damning those who have made careers out of doing just that. "Kenneth Feld started the Center for Elephant Conservation 20 years ago last month," he says. "The family realizes it has a commitment and is in a unique position to conserve a species no one else could. They have the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Northern Hemisphere. If they don't do this, there will not be any Asian elephants left in North America. There are only 35,000 anywhere. The company understands the center is a special place."
Of course, PETA claims the center is another place where elephants are abused, presenting the testimony of former workers. It's back-and-forth like this that led to Feld deciding to take elephants off the road. Fighting anti-circus bills that were popping up along its tour routes, the company decided to "stop playing legislative whack-a-mole," Payne explained. "Why don't we just invest in the center and conservation and really make a difference?"
A frequent visitor to the center, he described it as "like Jurassic Park with a happy ending. People are wide eyed. They look stunned as they get to feed and talk to the elephants. You don't just watch them, you meet them, get to know them. It's extraordinary."
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While saying goodbye to elephants over 18 shows from Friday through Aug. 2, crowds in Anaheim will also marvel at a new aerial Bungee display, the youngest female human cannonball ever and, according to the big toppers, "an X-HILARATING adventure with X-TRAORDINARY circus artists and magnificent X-OTIC animals!"
"It's an exciting show," Payne says. "It's very different than last year. It's really high energy, everyone will really have a great time."
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