The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Animal crackers have been caged for 116 years. Pressure on Nabisco helped free them.

Nabisco’s redesigned box appears on the shelf of a grocery store in Des Moines. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

After more than a century of imprisonment, Barnum’s cracker creatures are roaming free — until they meet their mushy demise in the mouths of children, anyway.

After pressure from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Nabisco has rolled out a redesign of its Barnum’s animal crackers box — which takes its name from the famed circus — that historically featured animals behind bars. Now, the box shows the animals in formation, asserting their freedom on the savanna.

“We’re always looking at how we do things to ensure we’re staying relevant for our consumers,” said Kimberly Fontes, a spokeswoman for Mondelez International, Nabisco’s parent company. “It seemed like the right time for the next evolution in the brand’s design.”

In an April 2016 letter, PETA implored Nabisco, the company that makes the crackers, to change its advertising, as public resistance to circuses grew because of allegations about abuse of circus animals.

“Given the egregious cruelty inherent in circuses that use animals and the public’s swelling opposition to the exploitation of animals used for entertainment, we urge Nabisco to update its packaging in order to show animals who are free to roam in their natural habitats,” the letter read.

PETA pointed to other companies — Lucky Brand Jeans and American Eagle — that had also recently dropped products that used circus imagery. A few months later, after correspondence with Mondelez, PETA even sent a mock-up of a cage-free design, with a classic group of animals in a natural setting, in a style consistent with the original product.

“The final design they ended up using is remarkably similar to the one our design team created,” said Ben Williamson, a PETA media director. “The new box for the animal crackers reflects that society no longer tolerates the chaining and caging of wild animals.”

The crackers’ namesake, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, spent decades traveling the country with its troupes of animals and performers — although neither namesake Phineas Barnum or the circus ever saw a cut of the snack’s profits. But Ringling Bros. had long struggled with protests and legal disputes from animal rights activists. In 2015, the company announced that it would no longer use elephants as part of its shows. At the time, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment — which operated the circus — said that Ringling Bros.’ declining ticket sales dwindled even further after the elephants were taken offstage. “The Greatest Show on Earth” took down its tents in May 2017 after a 146-year run.

The Humane Society of the United States, one of the many organizations that has clashed with circuses over alleged animal cruelty, is rejoicing over the new look of the Nabisco box.

Today’s consumers are savvy shoppers and they want to buy products that are consistent with their values,” said Debbie Leahy, a manager of captive wildlife protection at the Humane Society. “We’re glad to see that Nabisco is keeping up with the times.”

Revamping a product as classic as Barnum’s Animals is more challenging than you’d think, said Angeline Close Scheinbaum, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Since the crackers hit U.S. shelves in 1902, both the product and packaging have been remarkably unchanged. The brand’s endurance speaks to the power of nostalgia, Scheinbaum said, so altering it can be risky.

“Some consumer brands can give a sense of comfort and reliability,” Scheinbaum said. “If grandparents down to grandchildren can experience it the same way, that’s a good signal for the brand from a common-sense perspective that it must be a good product.”

Barnum’s animal crackers have always been aimed at children, Scheinbaum said. Their boxes have always been bright red and yellow, with a familiar crew of circus animals — elephants, lions, zebras, with some wild cards such as polar bears — in caged circus wagons. Past iterations have had little wheels that allow the box to stand up like a wagon and strings that served as a handle or let them hang from Christmas trees as ornaments. Over the years, dozens of animals have been rendered in the crunchy, classic form. In a 1995 interview, Nabisco product manager Greg Price told the New York Times that the inclusion of 16 endangered species was meant to teach kids about vulnerable creatures as they munched.

“Our hope was that children will line them up, match them up with the names on the box, learn about them and then decapitate them,” Price said.

Nabisco has even produced limited edition redesigns to bring attention to animal-related issues and organizations, like the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the World Wildlife Fund. Nabisco even partnered with fashion designer Lilly Pulitzer on a box to promote tiger conservation efforts in 2010.

In addition to the liberated animals, the new package is also more transparent about nutrition facts than older versions, outlining serving size and saturated fat, sugar and sodium content. Still, the new design is familiar — same colors, same creatures — and reassures consumers with, “New look, same taste!”

“When brands want to come up with the times and modernize, that’s great, but it’s important to be in keeping with a consistent look and feel with the colors, the font and the copy,” Scheinbaum said. “It gives people a promise of consistency.”

Nabisco declined to answer how many boxes of Barnum’s animal crackers it sells each year. But with its update to the iconic snack, Nabisco hopes that kids and families will be learning from — and chomping on — the crackers for decades to come.

“This is a brand that’s 116 years old, a brand that’s certainly iconic for many,” Fontes said. “But it will continue to change and evolve.”