Ringling’s momentous decision: One week on…

Feld Entertainment’s momentous decision to phase out the use of elephants in both their Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses, left activists, lobbyists and elephant lovers both surprised and elated. 

Now that the news has sunk it, what’s the word in the herd on this shock decision? DEGTH? finds out…


Image: lePhotography/Flickr

On Thursday 5 March Feld Entertainment, parent company to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses, announced that it would begin phasing out the use of elephants in its live shows. The thirteen elephants currently travelling on the road with the circus will be relocated to the Ringling Centre for Elephant Conservation in Florida by 2018, joining twenty-nine elephants already living there.

This decision brings an end to over 130 years of the practice and I believe reflects the paradigm shift occurring in how humans see elephants. “There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers,” Alana Feld, executive vice president for Feld Entertainment, said. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”

The company’s President, Kenneth Feld stated in an interview with the NY Times that the financial resources previously taken up by tackling ‘anti-circus’ and ‘anti-elephant’  legislation could now be put into elephant care and conservation, “We’re not reacting to our critics; we’re creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant.” Whatever the official line, there is no doubt that this decision comes in response to newly enacted restrictions on performing elephants in certain states and the people behind such restrictions are the critics and elephant advocates!

Until now Ringling Brothers have been the the real weight fighting off ‘anti’ legislation, now that they will not be adding their weight to the ring it stands to reason that future anti-legislation stands a much better chance.

The ink barely had time to dry before activists, including PETA, called into question the timing of the decision. “Many of the elephants are painfully arthritic, and many have tuberculosis, so their retirement day needs to come now,” wrote Ingrid E. Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in a statement. “If the decision is serious, then the circus needs to do it NOW.”

But unfortunately, one week on and despite fervent criticism, Feld Entertainment does not appear to be budging on its original schedule. Their defence calls upon practical considerations, stating it will take at least that amount of time to prepare the Florida facility for their arrival. “Each elephant requires a certain amount of space and a certain amount of barn area,” said Stephen Payne, Feld’s spokesman, “permits, drainage issues and other logistics must be worked out”.

So whether it be one, two or three years from now, what does the future look like for these long suffering elephants?

We are led to believe that initially the conservation center will be open only to researchers, scientists and others studying the Asian elephant. Sadly, it seem unlikely the elephants will be left in peace. The centre currently runs an Asian Elephant breeding programme with 26 calves born in the last 20 years and also loans elephants to zoo breeding programmes. Chairman and CEO Kenneth Feld already foresees an expansion “to something the public will be able to see.”

But while our gut reaction as elephant advocates may be to balk at elephants continuing to be a public spectacle, consider this… it may be better for the elephants to be under the scrutiny and inspection of the public-eye rather than shut away behind gates only for Ringling to ‘buck up their act’ and hide the bull hook, once every blue moon for a planned inspection!

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An elephant calf born at the RIngling Centre for Elephant Conservation in Florida. Credit: Ringling Bros.

Whatever future faces these elephants it has to be preferable for them than being dragged about in trucks, loaded and unloaded, dressed up, cavorted on and made to perform unnatural stunts, all the while fearing the bull hook! Unfortunately it’s not such good news for the lions, tigers, horses, and camels that Ringling will continue to exploit in its live shows.

With this major precedent set, attentions will undoubtedly turn to the smaller circuses still clinging on to their elephant acts –  but clinging they are, and with the foundation stones removed we hope it won’t be too long before the rest come crashing down!

Here is one circus elephant you can help:

Nosey is a 32 year old African elephant, captured from the wild in Zimbabwe as an infant and exported to America. She has the misfortune to be owned by Hugo Liebel of Florida State Family Circus, and has been dragged from state to state to perform since 1989. The US Department of Agriculture has clocked up nearly two decades worth of Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations for her but to no avail. A sanctuary has offered to take her but the Liebels are stubborn and unrepentant, and are not about to let her go willingly. In response to Ringling’s March 5 announcement, Mariska Liebling posted to instagram “It’s a sad day for circus world”. Sign this petition to have Nosey confiscated and sent to a sanctuary.

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DO Elephants Go To Heaven?, currently in production will explore the devastating effects that living in captivity has on elephants. For such emotional, intelligent animals and socially complex animals, being held captive in zoos or circuses is tantamount to you living your whole life in solitude in an area the size of your bathroom! Read more about the documentary here, connect with us on Facebook or tweet @dolfilms.

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