Animal rights activists claimed a major victory Sunday after Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said it would halt its show in May after 146 years.
The move came as circuses and animal-performance shows across the country have struggled with declining attendance and shifting social pressure brought to bear by activists who argued the animals were sometimes poorly treated. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus removed elephants from its performances last May, and the company said ticket sales then dropped drastically. The company had long battled animal rights activists in costly court skirmishes — winning a $15.75 million judgment against them in 2015 — but apparently lost the larger fight over public opinion.
“IT’S OVER,” actress and animal rights advocate Pamela Anderson posted to her 1.07 million Twitter followers.
PETA, which has long crusaded against animal treatment, lauded the decision and said the trend should accelerate. “All other animal circuses, roadside zoos, and wild animal exhibitors, including marine amusement parks like SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, must take note: Society has changed, eyes have been opened, people know now who these animals are, and we know it is wrong to capture and exploit them.”
Circuses have long been a part of the American social fabric, bringing exotic animals to small towns across the country, giving awestruck children a taste of the wilder world beyond. But the past three decades, in particular, have seen a growing concern for the health and welfare of wild animals who spend their lives in captivity.
Most people didn’t realize what went on behind the scenes, said Jan Creamer, the president of Animal Defenders International, which has conducted undercover investigations into circuses for 20 years. Even if only some circuses treated the animals poorly, people began to believe that simply keeping them in captivity and forcing them to perform was its own kind of cruelty, she said.
“People were shocked at the day-to-day casual violence,” Creamer said. “We didn’t know any better. Now, we do. As Ringling has found out, people are better educated and … recognize suffering and cruelty in other species. They don’t want to see animals suffer for 15 minutes of entertainment.”
Feld Entertainment, which owned the circus, said ticket sales dropped after the elephants were retired to the company’s breeding and research facility. The company didn’t specify what will happen to the remaining animals, which include tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels, but scheduled a Monday press conference to discuss the decision. Company officials declined to be interviewed on Sunday.
"The circus and its people have continually been a source of inspiration and joy to my family and me, which is why this was such a tough business decision to make, company CEO Kenneth Feld said in a statement. "The decision was even more difficult because of the amazing fans that have become part of our extended circus family over the years, and we are extremely grateful to the millions of families who have made Ringling Bros. part of their lives for generations."
The company's two circus shows, Out of This World and Circus Xtreme, have 30 shows left, including appearances in Atlanta, Brooklyn and Boston. The final shows are May 7 at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., and May 21 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. The company said it would help its circus performers transition to new roles but didn’t offer specifics about how many employees might lose the jobs.
Feld Entertainment said in a statement that the spirit of the circus would live on through the company's other shows.
As with most things, Internet chatter immediately turned the circus conversation to politics. Actor and author George Takei said the title of the “Greatest Show on Earth” would now be taken up by the Trump administration (he used language we can’t print), and multiple USA TODAY readers jokingly suggested that the circus clowns would find work in politics.
Those kinds of jokes previously hit a nerve with Feld Entertainment, which last fall launched a “#TakeBackTheCircus” campaign after growing tired of hearing politicians referred to as clowns.