In what animal rights advocates are calling "a startling and tremendously exciting announcement," the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said Thursday that it will retire its performing elephants by 2018.
The entertainment company told the Associated Press exclusively that "growing public concern about how the animals are treated led to the decision."
"Many of the elephants with Ringling are painfully arthritic or have tuberculosis, so their retirement day needs to come now. Three years is too long for a mother elephant separated from her calf... and too long for an animal who would roam up to 30 miles a day in the wild but who is instead kept in shackles."
—Ingrid Newkirk, PETA
"There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," Alana Feld, executive vice president of Ringling parent company Feld Entertainment, told the AP. "A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."
Feld owns the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America, according to the news agency—43 in total, 29 of which live at the company's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. Thirteen animals will continue to tour with the circus before retiring to the center by 2018, and one elephant is on a breeding loan to the Fort Worth Zoo.
Animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have for decades called out Ringling's treatment of the gentle giants.
"We know that extreme abuse of these majestic animals occurs every single day, so if Ringling is telling the truth about ending this horror, then it’s a day to pop the champagne corks and rejoice," PETA president Ingrid Newkirk declared in a statement.
However, she continued, "many of the elephants with Ringling are painfully arthritic or have tuberculosis, so their retirement day needs to come now. Three years is too long for a mother elephant separated from her calf, too long for a baby elephant beaten with bullhooks (a sharp weapon resembling a fireplace poker that Ringling handlers use routinely), and too long for an animal who would roam up to 30 miles a day in the wild but who is instead kept in shackles."
Though company president Kenneth Feld had previously testified that 'The Greatest Show on Earth' would not be the same without its performing elephants, Thursday's announcement suggests public pressure has changed his mind.
"With consumers now so alert to animal welfare issues, no business involved in any overt form of animal exploitation can survive in the long run," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. "We've said all along that the public won’t tolerate the abuse of elephants with sharp bullhooks to get them to perform tricks or the constant chaining of these highly intelligent and mobile animals. There are better forms of entertainment that don’t harm animals."