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Animal rights activists celebrate the end of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus

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The elephants were the star attraction for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus until videos and stories of abuse became widely known. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • wikimedia commons
  • The elephants were the star attraction for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus until videos and stories of abuse became widely known.
A 146-year tradition ends on May 21, after Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus’ last performance in Uniondale, N.Y. Although news anchors at NBC expressed sorrow and disappointment at the announcement that Ringling would permanently close its circus this year, resounding cheers went up across the country from animal rights activists.

Among those cheering is Tonja Robertson, who has been protesting Ringling’s performances in Indianapolis for years.

“What a historic day!” exclaimed Robertson. “I am absolutely thrilled – for the Ringling animals, for animals in captivity in all forms of entertainment and for all the activists who never gave up. It confirms to me the importance of never staying silent about the suffering of animals.”

Ingrid Newkirk, president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, not only has spent the last three decades protesting circuses, but also has supported Indianapolis’ annual protest by supplying signs, informational leaflets and an animatronic elephant voiced by Priyanka Chopra to educate the public about the inherent cruelty of the circus.

“When PETA started 36 years ago, we were determined to end the use of wild animals in circuses,” she says. “I’m so grateful and so proud of everyone who ever did anything on this campaign!”

PETA protested almost every show Ringling put on, showing video of Ringling trainers striking elephants in the face, whipping tigers and locking animals in dark box cars for 2-3 days at a time, standing in their own waste.

A breakthrough came in 2009 when a whistleblower who worked for Ringling turned over photos he had taken of the cruel training methods used on baby elephants, such as tying them down, beating and prodding them with bullhooks, a tool used to train elephants that is considered inhumane, while their mothers watched.

“That did for Ringling’s audience what Blackfish did for SeaWorld’s,” Newkirk says. “It was the beginning of the end.”

Sign of the times

Ongoing protests by animal rights activists increased pressure on Ringling to stop what PETA dubbed “the saddest show on earth.” In 2015 Ringling announced it would stop using elephants in its shows. The large pachyderms would “retire” to their reserve in central Florida.

It didn’t take long for that decision to impact business. Declining to provide exact numbers, Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, said that10 million people came to the circus each year (although Forbes estimated only 5 million). Nevertheless, he admitted that the numbers had been dropping, and once the iconic elephants were gone, ticket sales plummeted.

“Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop,” Feld said in a statement. “This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”

“They couldn’t deal with dwindling ticket sales,” Newkirk observes. “People [were] actually looking at our photos, turning around and walking away.”

Applauding Feld for moving away from “an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts,” Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president, said in a statement, “Ringling Bros. has changed a great deal over a century and a half, but not fast enough. It’s just not acceptable any longer to cart wild animals from city to city and have them perform silly yet coercive stunts.”
New era
“It is a new era,” Newkirk proclaims. “Now all the bear pits and roadside zoos and other little animal circuses must retire their animals, too, and show we are an enlightened country.”

Demanding that other acts follow suit, PETA aims squarely at SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium. “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.”

The Feld family has owned Ringling Bros. circus since 1967, when Feld’s father Irvin bought the circus for $8 million from John Ringling North. Irvin produced the circus until his death in 1984, at which time Kenneth took over.
The Indiana Animal Rights Alliance organized protests every time Ringling visited Indianapolis. - LORI LOVELY
  • Lori Lovely
  • The Indiana Animal Rights Alliance organized protests every time Ringling visited Indianapolis.
But increasingly negative public sentiment about forcing captive wild animals to perform has forced companies like Ringling to come up with other forms of entertainment. In fact, according to Forbes, only 15 percent of Feld Entertainment’s $1.3 billion annual revenue came from the circus, with the rest deriving from other human performances.

It’s a lesson learned long ago in Peru, Indiana, the former winter quarters for several circuses, including Ringling. From 1883, when Ben Wallace first brought the Wallace Circus to Peru for the winter, to the 1940s, at least 14 major traveling circuses chose Peru as their winter quarters due to its central location and railroad access, as well as its large sheds for animals and land for pasture. Peru became known as “Circus City.”

Today that heritage lives on in the Peru Amateur Circus, the Circus City Festival and Parade and the International Circus Hall of Fame Museum. Instead of training animals to perform, Peru’s circus showcases children. Each year approximately 200 try out for the town’s youth circus as jugglers, unicyclists, clowns, aerialists and tight-rope walkers.

In Peru, Indiana’s circus tradition is all about the kids, but since 1933, the Hadi Shrine Circus in Evansville has featured animals, including lions, bears and elephants, in addition to acrobats and new acts like motocross stunt riders.

Calling the annual circus its “largest money-maker of the year,” Dale Thomas, spokesman, says, “It’s what sustains us and keeps our doors open, our lights on and keeps us viable so we can offer many of the programs we do offer.” The main program supported by the circus is support for the Shriners children’s hospitals in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

What the future holds

Whether the Hadi Shrine Circus will follow the example of Ringling remains to be seen. But as the anti-animal act movement gains momentum and the public turns away from animal acts, Sandy Laycock, owner of Row Printing Inc. and longtime Ringling protestor, expresses gratitude for the compassionate volunteers who protested in the cold, year after year when the circus came to Indy.

“While we can never take back the suffering that animals in Ringling’s circus experienced for over 100 years,” Laycock continues, “it is wonderful to know that going forward, animals will be spared pain and torture in the name of entertainment.”

They may be spared pain in the name of entertainment, but questions remain about their wellbeing. Ringling’s menagerie includes elephants, lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, kangaroos, alpacas and llamas. Juliette Feld, chief operating officer for Feld Entertainment, told the Associated Press that homes will be found for most of the animals, but that the company will continue operating the Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, where they will be used for cancer research and for breeding purposes.

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