For the Greatest Show on Earth, there is no longer an elephant in the room. The 145-year-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus held its last show featuring elephants Sunday night, in a move that's being applauded by animal rights activists.
Ringling announced its plan last spring, saying it is sending all its Asian elephants to live on the company's Florida nature reserve. The original plan called for phasing out elephants' role in the circus by 2018. But in January, Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, said it was moving up the timetable.
At the time, Feld Entertainment's vice president of communications, Steve Payne, told NPR's Jackie Northam that the family that controls the company "decided that removing the elephants from the circus units and bringing them to the Center for Elephant Conservation was in the best interest of the company and, most importantly, the elephants."
The decision came after years of growing public concern for the elephants' well-being, with activists criticizing Ringling for forcing intelligent animals that, in the wild, sustain complex social relationships, to live in captivity and isolation.
News that Ringling would stop bringing elephants from city to city on its circus tours landed like a bombshell last year, with Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle comparing the case to SeaWorld's use of killer whales — and saying that for Feld, which had long resisted calls to stop using elephants in its shows, to agree with activists was "almost like the [fall of] the Berlin Wall within the animal welfare [community]," as the Two-Way reported.
A total of 11 elephants took part in their last shows on Sunday, in circuses at Wilkes Barre, Pa., and Providence, R.I. The elephants will now join about 30 others at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, a 200-acre facility that says it now hosts "the largest Asian elephant herd in the Western Hemisphere."
In addition to Ringling, Feld Entertainment operates a range of high-profile traveling shows, from Monster Jam and Supercross to Marvel Universe Live and Disney on Ice.