Ringling Bros. Frees Its Elephants—Are Killer Whales Next?

The circus concedes public pressure prompted it to stop using elephants as entertainment.

(Photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Mar 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Will Ringling Bros.’ surprising decision to end the use of elephants in its circus shows by 2018 prove to be the beginning of the end of wild animal entertainment?

It’s too soon to tell. But one lesson from the move is clear: When it comes to companies engaging in controversial practices, public pressure works.

The circus’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, said the “unprecedented” decision was based on two main factors.

“There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers,” Alana Feld, the company’s executive vice president, told The Associated Press. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”

Meanwhile, company president Kenneth Feld pointed to a growing list of cities and counties that have passed “anti-circus” and “anti-elephant” ordinances.

“This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants, and our customers,” Feld said in a statement.

Animal rights activists were quick to claim victory and proclaim the coming demise of this form of entertainment.

The decision was a “Berlin Wall moment for animal protection,” Wayne Pacelle, chief executive of The Humane Society of the United States, wrote on the group’s website.

“With consumers now so alert to animal welfare issues, no business involved in any overt form of animal exploitation can survive in the long run,” Pacelle said.

A representative for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also said that shifting public attitudes prompted the “Greatest Show on Earth” to retire its elephants.

“There’s no doubt that Ringling’s decision to end elephant acts is a direct result of public pressure from activists,” said Brittany Peet, PETA’s director of captive animal law enforcement.

Peet added that the company was also looking after its bottom line, calling the move “pragmatic and economic.”

The circus industry has long been under attack by animal rights groups.

“Elephants, tigers, bears, camels, zebras, and other animals spend their lives on the road virtually year round, shuffled from parking lot to parking lot, locked in tiny cages and on train cars or trucks for days at a time,” according to In Defense of Animals. “They are trained with physical punishment: bull hooks, whips, electrical prods, and other devices.”

Meanwhile, thanks in part to public opprobrium and legislative action, many U.S. circuses have decided to forgo the use of animals in their shows.

So if the United States’ most famous circus can make such a bold move, how might that impact other circuses, traveling animal shows, and parks that use wild animals for entertainment, such as SeaWorld?

SeaWorld has faced fierce opposition to its display of marine mammals, largely driven by the documentary Blackfish, which excoriated the company for its treatment of captive orcas. The company has also fought bills to ban orca captivity, such as recent efforts in California, New York, and Washington state.

“We absolutely think that all entertainment centers like SeaWorld that keep marine animals in captivity, especially in light of dropping attendance rates after the release of Blackfish, will be taking note,” Priscilla Ma, U.S. executive director of World Animal Protection, said in an email.

Even as they applauded Ringling’s decision, activists said it did not go far enough, noting that the circus will still use tigers, horses, dogs, and other animals while continuing to showcase elephants over the next three years.

“A lot can happen in the intervening time, and I’m not sure why the company isn’t implementing it sooner,” Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute, said in an email. “Regardless, it is significant that, after claiming there can be no circus without elephants, Ringling Bros. is now suggesting it can do just that.”

Then there’s the fate of the 13 elephants appearing in the circus’ shows. Ringling Bros. said they will be sent to its Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, which the company calls a “state-of-the-art facility dedicated to the conservation, breeding, and understanding of these amazing animals.”

But according to the PETA-run website Ringling Bros. Beats Animals, life at the center is not ideal. A former employee, Sam Haddock, gave PETA photographs of how some animals are allegedly mistreated.