POLK CITY, Fla. — The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus says the "Greatest Show on Earth" will go on without elephants.
Animal rights groups took credit for generating the public concern that forced the company to announce its pachyderm retirement plan on Thursday. But Ringling Bros.' owners described it as the bittersweet result of years of internal family discussions.
"It was a decision 145 years in the making," said Juliette Feld, referring to P.T. Barnum's introduction of animals to his "traveling menagerie" in 1870. Elephants have symbolized this circus since Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882.
Kenneth Feld — whose father bought the circus in 1967 and who now runs Feld Enterprises Inc. with his three daughters — insisted that animal rights activists weren't responsible.
"We're not reacting to our critics; we're creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant," Kenneth Feld told The Associated Press as he broke the news that the last 13 performing elephants will retire by 2018, joining 29 other pachyderms at the company's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida.
But Feld acknowledged that because so many cities and counties have passed "anti-circus" and "anti-elephant" ordinances, it's difficult to organize tours of three traveling circuses to 115 cities each year. Fighting legislation in each jurisdiction is expensive, he said.
"All of the resources used to fight these things can be put toward the elephants," Feld said.
Los Angeles prohibited the use of bull-hooks by elephant trainers and handlers last April. Oakland, California, did likewise in December, banning the devices used to keep elephants in control. Last month, the city of Asheville, North Carolina nixed wild or exotic animals from performing in the municipally-owned, 7,600-seat U.S. Cellular Center.
"There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," said Alana Feld, the company's executive vice president. "A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."
Ingrid E. Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says her group made that happen.
"For 35 years PETA has protested Ringling Bros.' cruelty to elephants," she wrote in a statement. "We know extreme abuse to these majestic animals occurs every single day, so if Ringling is really telling the truth about ending this horror, it will be a day to pop the champagne corks, and rejoice. ... If the decision is serious, then the circus needs to do it NOW."
Carol Bradley, the author of the book "Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top," which is about a non-Ringling circus elephant, said she believes the Feld family "realized it was a losing PR battle."
"This is an enormous, earth-moving decision," she said. "When I heard the news, my jaw hit the floor. I never thought they'd change their minds about this."
Bradley wondered if the Feld family's decision had anything to do with the fallout over "Blackfish," a documentary exploring why the orca Tilikum killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010.
The documentary argues that killer whales in captivity become more aggressive to humans and each other. Since it aired, several entertainers pulled out of performances at SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. parks, and Southwest Airlines ended its marketing partnership.
Ringling also has been targeted by activists who say forcing animals to perform is cruel and unnecessary.
In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants.
The initial lawsuit was filed by a former Ringling barn helper who accepted at least $190,000 from animal-rights groups. The judge called him "essentially a paid plaintiff" who lacked credibility and standing to sue, and rejected the abuse claims.
Kenneth Feld testified about the elephants' importance to the show during that 2009 trial.
"The symbol of the 'Greatest Show on Earth' is the elephant, and that's what we've been known for throughout the world for more than a hundred years," he said.
Asked by a lawyer whether the show would be the same without elephants, Feld replied, "No, it wouldn't."
Asked again this week, Feld said, "Things have changed."
Pat Cuviello, a San Mateo, California-based animal activist who has protested and videotaped Ringling's animals since 1988, said he was ecstatic to hear the news.
"I hope at some point they get rid of all the animals in all the circuses," he said.
For now, animals remain part of this circus: Tigers, dogs and goats are still performing, and a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders joined its Circus Xtreme show this year. But audiences can expect more motorsports, daredevils and feats of human physical capabilities to be showcased in the future.
In 2008, Feld acquired motor sports properties including monster truck shows, motocross and the International Hot Rod Association, which promotes drag races and other events. In 2010, it created a theatrical motorcycle stunt show called Nuclear Cowboyz. Roughly 30 million people attend Feld's 5,000 live entertainment shows every year.
Ringling's popular Canada-based competitor, Cirque du Soleil, features human acts and doesn't use wild animals.
But elephants are still being used by smaller circuses in the U.S., and in places like Russia, France and Thailand.
With a total of 43 elephants, Feld owns the largest herd in North America, and spends about $65,000 yearly to care for each one. New structures will be needed to house the retiring elephants at the rural center, which is close enough to Orlando to attract tourists eventually if that's what Feld decides to offer.
Kenneth Feld said initially the center will be open only to scientists and others studying the Asian elephant, but he "hopes it expands to something the public will be able to see."
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