It's hard to think about the Ringling Bros. circus without picturing elephants, but its use of the animal in its acts has been one of the most controversial animal rights issues for decades. On Thursday, the circus's parent company, Feld Entertainment, announced that Ringling Bros. would phase out its elephant acts by 2018. The company cites public concerns over its treatment of the elephants as the motivating factor behind the difficult decision. While eliminating elephant acts is a monumental step in the right direction for animal rights, Ringling certainly has been dragging its feet.
Dating back more than 100 years, Ringling Bros.' elephant acts have become one of its most defining traditions and make up a significant component to the show. Kenneth Feld, president of Feld Entertainment, once said, "The symbol of the 'Greatest Show on Earth' is the elephant, and that's what we've been known for throughout the world for more than a hundred years." Needless to say, taking their symbol out of the show was a tough decision for the company, and one that they've resisted for decades.
Animal rights group PETA has been protesting the circus's use of elephants for 35 years, alleging that Ringling Bros. subjects the animals to inhumane treatment, harsh conditions, and overall mental and physical distress. But PETA is far from the only advocacy group boycotting the circus, and the general public has voiced its opposition as well, forming groups like Occupy Ringling Bros.
However, when another Feld Entertainment exec explained the company's decision, it sounded as if the protests were new information. Executive Vice President Alana Feld told the Associated Press:
There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers. A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants.
"Somewhat of a mood shift" definitely downplays the years of intense boycotting and protests against Ringling Bros. In recent years, Feld Entertainment has made significant efforts to counter the allegations of animal abuse and redeem its reputation by making animal conservation one of its main focuses in addition to circus entertainment (seems kind of incongruent, no?), and the company made sure to emphasize its efforts in its decision to cut elephant acts. Kenneth Feld said in an interview with AP:
We're not reacting to our critics; we're creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant.... I want everybody's grandkids to be able to see Asian elephants.
In 1995, Feld Entertainment founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Florida, where more than 40 elephants currently reside — the largest group of Asian elephants in North America. The circus's remaining 13 elephants that are still performing regularly in its shows will be sent there over the next five years. In a separate statement, Feld said:
This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995. 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.
As Ringling Bros. begins to phase out its elephant acts, the company has no plans to eleminate its acts involving other animals. It added a troupe of camel riders to its Circus Xtreme show just this year.
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