The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After 145 years, Ringling Bros. Circus elephants perform for the last time

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus's Asian elephants had their final performances in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Providence, R.I., on May 1, 2016. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Bill Sikes/The Washington Post)
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The circus’s leading ladies wore nothing special for their farewell performance Sunday — no extra bedazzle, no added flair — just the traditional blue headdresses declaring their expiring part in “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Through the lush red curtain they sashayed, all six, all endangered Asian elephants, weighing a combined 30 tons. At the command of the ringmaster, the girls lumbered about, dancing and spinning, standing on pedestals and standing on each other, standing on their heads.

They’d spent the last two and a half years traveling 36,000 miles on a 64-car train, performing 900 times in over 80 cities for the world-renowned Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Elephants just like them had done the same for 145 years.

Now it was time to say goodbye.

“That’s history right there ladies and gentlemen,” ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson told a roaring crowd inside the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., the circus’s final stop of its “Legends” show circuit.

“True American icons,” Iverson added.

Then the elephants sashayed one last time, back through the curtain and out of sight, closing a popular, though deeply controversial, chapter of the famous enterprise’s history.

Decades of litigation, protest and mounting scrutiny from swaths of animal rights activists, as well as a shifting public opinion toward the captivity and use of wild animals for entertainment, forced the circus to phase out its long-running elephant act for good. Feld Entertainment Inc., the circus’s parent company, announced the decision in March 2015, initially planning to retire their remaining touring elephants by 2018. But nearly a year later, the company said their elephants would perform for the final time in May, at least 18 months earlier than expected.

Ringling Bros. elephants headed for an early retirement in Florida

After their performance Sunday in Rhode Island, the six female elephants joined five others that also retired at shows in Wilkes Barre, Penn., on a train headed south, toward the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. There, the show’s 11 remaining elephants will join its herd of 29 to live out their days.

Researchers, academics and conservationists study the elephants at the center, looking for ways to re-populate the Asian elephant, an endangered species. The Center houses the largest herd of Asian elephants in the Western Hemisphere, according to its website.

The Center was established in 1995. A few years later, in 1998, a whistleblower tipped off the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to the death of Kenny, a 3-year-old Asian elephant traveling with the Ringling Bros. Circus, PETA said. He performed in two shows in Jacksonville, Fla., then sat out a third but was led into the arena to watch. He died overnight in his stall.

The long battle to remove elephants from the Ringling Bros. circus

After that, PETA contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which brought a complaint against the circus, charging it with failing to handle Kenny “as expeditiously and carefully as possible in a manner that did not cause behavioral stress and unnecessary discomfort.” The complaint also alleged that the handlers knew the elephant was ill and needed to see a veterinarian, but forced it to perform anyway.

Later, the USDA settled with Feld Entertainment, and the company agreed to donate $20,000 to Asian elephant organizations, according to an investigation by Mother Jones into the mistreatment of Ringling Bros. elephants.

More USDA investigations followed, including a look into the death of 4-year-old elephant Benjamin, who was hit with a bullhook when he refused to exit a pond during a recreational swim between circus performances.

The Mother Jones investigation alleged rampant disease spread in captivity, the separation of babies from their mothers and prolonged periods of time spent in chains.

Other animal rights groups joined PETA’s ranks, protesting Ringling Bros. use of elephants in its shows. Several major U.S. cities banned the use of bullhooks, heavy batons that look like fire pokers that trainers use to provoke, lead or guide elephants.

In 2011, Feld Entertainment agreed to pay a record $270,000 fine to settle charges it violated animal welfare laws, reported The New York Times.

Even celebrities, including actor Alec Baldwin, organized a protest of the circus.

In 2014, the company snagged a public relations victory when several animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, were ordered to pay $16 million to settle unproven allegations that the circus was mistreating elephants. The case had been tied up in litigation for 14 years.

Ringling Circus prevails in 14-year legal case; collects $16M from Humane Society, others

Another entertainment giant, SeaWorld, recently made a similar decision to end its controversial captive breeding program of orca whales after the highly critical documentary ‘Blackfish’ spotlighted the creatures’ living conditions and the dangers their handlers face. SeaWorld cited evolving public opinion on the issue as one reason.

SeaWorld ends captive breeding program, says current batch of killer whales ‘will be the last’

During a live broadcast of the elephant’s final performance on the Ringling Bros. website, Alana Feld, a third generation member of the Feld Entertainment business, and the field entertainment director, said the day was a “momentous occasion.”

She recalled some of her favorite circus memories, which included the elephants, especially the time they visited her 7th birthday party and gave rides to her friends.

Feld was quick to own the company’s decision.

“Ringling Bros. is all about change, and we’ve been around for 145 years because we’re constantly changing,” she said.

When Feld Entertainment first announced they would eliminate all elephant acts from the circus, company president Kenneth Feld told the Associated Press this was not them folding under pressure.

“We’re not reacting to our critics,” he said. “We’re creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant.”

In addition to aiding research in the endangered species, the herd at the Center for Elephant Conservation has become a key component in one doctor’s quest to develop cancer treatments for humans. Elephants have far fewer incidents of cancer, so researchers are looking for clues in the blood samples of Ringling elephants that could change how cancer is treated in pediatric patients.

The company was sure to plug all these points during the live broadcast of the circus.

When the elephants exited the arena for the final time and headed south to Florida, the circus’s remaining performers traveled to Feld Entertainment headquarters, where they’ll begin training for the next road show.

The theme will be outer space, Alana Feld said during the live broadcast, featuring for the first time an incorporated storyline. The company will integrate new technology, including video projection mapping, to create a “good vs. evil” performance.

The new show — the first elephant-less one in nearly a century and a half — will be called “Out of this world.”