The Feld family, which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, announced today that it has accomplished something animal-rights activists have not: End the use of elephants in the Greatest Show on Earth.
Performing elephants will not be hitting the unemployment lines immediately. Under the Feld Entertainment plan, 13 Asian elephants currently traveling with the three Ringling Bros. circus units will be relocated to the company's Center for Elephant for Conservation in Florida by 2018, when they will join an existing herd of 40 elephants, according to a statement from spokesman Stephen Payne.
It's a significant change as the circus is 145 years old, elephants have been performing with it for more than 100 years and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been vehemently protesting Ringling's use of elephants (and the circus has been vehemently defending it) for 35 years.
"This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995," says Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, in the release. "When we did so, we knew we would play a critical role in saving the endangered Asian elephant for future generations, given how few Asian elephants are left in the wild. Since then, we have had 26 elephant births. No other institution has done or is doing more to save this species from extinction, and that is something of which I and my family are extremely proud. This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers."
It obviously was not easy because, as Payne once told me over lunch in Anaheim, if there are no elephants in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, there is no Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He characterized a ban as a non-starter.
Because of that stance, Palmetto, Florida-based Feld has found itself defending the inclusion of performing elephants in courts and city council chambers, including Anaheim's, where then-Councilwoman Lorri Galloway on Aug. 21, 2012, proposed (and later pulled back) an ordinance to ban the use of exotic animals within city limits. Though broadly worded, the local law would have predominantly targeted Ringling Bros., which hosted an annual tradition of having elephants walk from rail cars to the Honda Center before its summer engagements.
Another yearly sight in Anaheim were local PETA demonstrators, including naked lasses painted like animals and stuck in cages to protest the arrival of the circus and clothed folks near Honda Center entrances passing out to circus-goers pamphlets decrying Ringling's treatment of non-humans.
Feld had always considered this a part of doing business in modern times, but while the Anaheim City Council did not pick up Galloway's proposal and run with it, another city on Ringling's Southern California swing, Los Angeles, last May banned the use of bullhooks that circus animal handlers use effective 2017, which would have essentially stopped performances in that city.
That decision was hailed by Norfolk, Virginia-based PETA, which sorta did the same with Feld's announcement this morning: "For 35 years, PETA has protested Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' cruelty to elephants. PETA also caught Ringling's abuse on video and released to the world a former Ringling trainer's photos of the circus's violent baby-elephant training to the world. We know that extreme abuse of these majestic animals occurs every single day, so if Ringling is telling the truth about ending this horror, then it's a day to pop the champagne corks and rejoice.
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"However, many of the elephants with Ringling are painfully arthritic or have tuberculosis, so their retirement day needs to come now. Three years is too long for a mother elephant separated from her calf, too long for a baby elephant beaten with bullhooks (a sharp weapon resembling a fireplace poker that Ringling handlers use routinely), and too long for an animal who would roam up to 30 miles a day in the wild but who is instead kept in shackles.
"If Ringling is serious about this decision, then it needs to end its use of elephants NOW."
The group vows to keep protesting the circus until all performing animals are retired.