The 145-year-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will by 2018 phase out one of its most visible acts—the elephants. The circus's parent company, Feld Entertainment, boasts the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America, with 43.
For its decision, the company is citing a “mood shift” among customers, the Associated Press reported Thursday. Really, it faced little choice. Groups such as PETA and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have made elephant capitivity too expensive. The groups have gotten cities to pass ordinances banning circuses and animal capitivity, making it too costly for Ringling to fight across the 115 cities the circus visits annually. For years, controversy has trailed the circus in major markets like New York and Los Angeles. Starting in 2017, L.A. will ban the bullhooks and pitchforks used to control circus elephants.
”All of the resources used to fight these things can be put towards the elephants,” Ringling Executive Vice President Alana Feld told the AP. “We’re not reacting to our critics; we’re creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant."
The announcement is progress for animal rights activists, to a degree. Ringling still uses camels, tigers, dogs, and goats in many of its acts, so the decision to phase out elephants might be an attempt to preempt even stricter laws. In December, Mexico banned circus animals altogether, another blow to Ringling, which tours there. The United Kingdom has considered similar legislation.
Ringling seems to be retreating with some grace intact. Meanwhile SeaWorld, facing a parallel battle, so far has charged heedlessly forward. In February, SeaWorld reported that a million fewer people attended performances in 2014 than in 2013, amounting to tens of millions in lost revenue. What changed? In 2013, the documentary BlackFish showed industry-wide abuse of orca "killer" whales—like isolating calves from their mothers and keeping them in cramped pools. California and Washington have introduced legislation (that appears to have stalled) seeking to ban SeaWorld’s use of orcas.
SeaWorld hasn't helped its case. Although it has since promised to double the size of its tanks, SeaWorld first responded with an aggressive campaign to undermine its critics. It filed a Labor Department complaint against one investigator for leaking documents to the makers of BlackFish and undertook seemingly rigged polling to spin its case. Maybe SeaWorld should follow Ringling's example and stop fighting.