Ringling Elephants Performed for the Last Time on Sunday

For over 100 years, elephants have been an integral part of Ringling Brothers Circuses — and, indirectly, a symbol of circuses as a whole. That changed on May 1, when the circus’ remaining performers took to the ring for the last time.

The elephants will be going to an elephant conservation park to live out the rest of their lives in an environment where they will finally get a break. Unfortunately, the same doesn’t hold true for circus elephants around the world — or for the other animal species used in Ringling acts. While the elephants are a huge and symbolic step, now isn’t the time for animal advocates to rest on their laurels.

Ringling Brothers was founded in 1884, and later acquired Barnum and Bailey, merging with the famous circus in 1919. Ever since, the show has been on the road with scores of exotic animals, performing first under the big top and later in arenas and stadiums.

Two entirely separate Ringling Brothers shows criss-cross the country, and many of the human performers and support staff are part of intergenerational families that have been in the industry for decades or even over a century. The circus is a tight, intimate family for its human members — but animals don’t have a choice about whether to join that family, and elephants are literally the largest, and most striking, example.

From the inception of the circus, the use of animal acts was supposed to entice and awe the public, and exotic animals like elephants, lions and tigers added to that draw.

From dangerous big cats to trained performing elephants, what people saw in the ring might have been astounding, but behind the curtain, circus animals were — and are — subjected to incredible cruelty, including training with bullhooks and other abusive devices, cramped quarters, long training and performing hours, and few opportunities to behave naturally.

Animals are bred for the circus, used until they’re no longer able to perform, and then discarded.

Elephants performing in a circus ring.

Photo credit: Laura Bittner

As a symbol of the circus, and a symbol of shocking cruelty, elephants have long been a target for animal advocates. In 2015, the famous circus company announced that it would be ending all elephant acts by 2018 and moving the animals to retirement facilities, but recently, it announced that it was moving the retirement date up to this year, ending an infamous era for the circus.

Advocates claimed the victory, while Ringling Brothers claimed that it was able to find places for retiring elephants sooner than expected — but pressure on the circus also came from individual countries, states and municipalities, all of which are cracking down on animal entertainment acts and making it harder for circuses like Ringling Brothers to use animals in the ring.

The pachyderms will be going to the Center for Elephant Conservation — funded in part with money from Ringling Brothers, which is clearly feeling the sting of negative public relations.

That said, the Center isn’t exactly an elephant sanctuary — it was originally established as a breeding facility for the circus, as well as a training center and spot for temporary housing. Circus officials say that breeding will continue, and while its elephants may enjoy better quality of life, they won’t be allowed total freedom and comfort, like their counterparts at other conservation centers.

For the Ringling elephants, it’s a partial victory — but the circus is still using other animal performers, including big cats and camels, and it doesn’t have any plans to change that in the near future. Wayne Pacelle, the President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, notes that a growing number of circuses are reconsidering the use of animal acts.

We can hope that the response to Ringling’s decision to finally retire its elephants will pressure the circus into turning away from the use of any animals in performance. And given that Ringling is a giant of the circus world, perhaps it will set a model for others in the industry to do the same. Becoming a pioneer on the circus landscape could be a huge advantage for a company that needs to evolve with the times.

Photo credit: Jasper Morse

84 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Rosslyn O.
Rosslyn O1 years ago

What? Only partial retirement? ........... "Circus officials say that breeding will continue, and while its elephants may enjoy better quality of life, they won’t be allowed total freedom and comfort, like their counterparts at other conservation centers"............ Haven't these elephants given you enough already? Send them to a proper Elephant Sanctuary, please.


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Marie W.
Marie W1 years ago

Step in right direction.

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Chris Ringgold
Chris Ringgold1 years ago

Hopefully, the other animals like lions, tigers, & monkeys will be able to retire peacefully as well.

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Chris Ringgold
Chris Ringgold1 years ago

Such a shame people have been mistreating these animals behind the scenes of the circus act for years. Glad something is being done about it now.

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Chris Ringgold
Chris Ringgold1 years ago

I'm so happy to hear that Elephants will be living at a conservation park where they will be able to be themselves & live in a natural environment socializing with other animals instead of being treated like slaves.

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Beth D.
Beth D1 years ago

I've been waiting for this day for so many years. Now, we must get the rest of the animals out of circuses forever. They are not meant to be kept, they are meant to live their lives in peace and health. I have boycotted circuses since the first time I went.

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Ann B.
Ann B1 years ago

this is a right step--now tigers, lions even the horses....circuses are a thing of the past--AND NEED TO BE SHUT DOWN..animals are not toys and need to be treated as animals WILD AND FREE

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L Galica
L Galica1 years ago

A step in the right direction

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Lori Hone
Lori Hone1 years ago

Partial victory

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