Time for a change: Ringling Bros.’ end and animal free circuses

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey acrobats ride camels during a performance Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end the "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May, following a 146-year run of performances. (Chris O'Meara/ AP)

This Saturday, the owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced the end of the “Greatest Show on Earth,” stating that the last show will be performed this May. The end of this 146-year long era comes with diverse emotions and opinions.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is an iconic part of the circus and its history. The modern circus began in the 1770s after equestrian Philip Astley added acrobats, rope-dancers and jugglers to his performances. Equestrians John Bill Ricketts and Philip Lailson brought the shows to North America. It is evident that animal performances are interwoven with the history of the modern circus. Exotic animals became a part of the American circus when Hachaliah Bailey bought and exhibited an African elephant around the country. Soon, other animals were imported and displayed in traveling tents. In 1833, Isaac A. Van Amburgh included acts in his display of animals, sticking his arm and head inside a lion’s mouth. The caging and performance of animals not only have a long history in circuses, but they also have a long history of protests and are involved in the closing of this iconic circus.

In May 2016, the retirement of elephants addressed a critical problem of exotic animals in circuses. The change came after decades of reports and citations against the circus for abuse of its elephants and other animals. In 1999, USDA investigators found two 18-month-old elephants with their legs tied up and injured. This is a part of the Ringling Bros.’s process for weaning baby elephants from their mother early. In nature, a baby elephant is weaned between ages two and four, but the Ringling Bros. wean baby elephants at 12 months. This process involves tying elephants, dragging them away from their mothers and forcing them to train. Due to this training and treatment, a three-year-old elephant died in a pond trying to escape a trainer hitting him with a bullhook, and an eight-month-old elephant was euthanized after shattering its legs. Since 1993, the Ringling Bros. has received over 50 USDA animal welfare citations. So while the retirement of these animals ends spectacular performances, it is evidently a necessary and critical move towards ending animal cruelty.

While the Ringling Bros. retired elephants in 2016, they continued the transport and training of other exotic animals, including tigers and camels. But a traveling circus is not a natural or healthy place for exotic animals. Tigers, for example, are carted around in cages and denied access to watering holes, which are part of their natural habitats. Circuses also force tigers into situations that defy their natural habits such as making the solitary, semi-nocturnal animals live in groups and perform during the day. The inclusion of exotic animals is not a defining characteristic of the circus, and seeing as there is no ethical way to include these animals in a circus, it is evident that they should no longer be a part of the modern circus.

Executives from Feld Entertainment, however, do not cite their closing Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus to only animal rights activism. While there were many long battles with activist groups, as well as a steep drop in attendance after the retirement of elephants, the closing is also attributed to high operating costs and changing public tastes. The 146-year-old circus company has seen that the rise of television, video games and the Internet have captured young minds today much like the circus had in the past.

While the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus is ending, that does not mean there is an end in sight for the circus itself. Circuses have adapted to the public’s will since their creation. While animals no longer should be considered in this, circuses find their heart in the art of performing great feats. While the consuming properties of television and the Internet often absorb the mind, the family trip to the circus is not over. The great feats both inspire youth and create great memories for the family. It is sad that the historic Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus could not adapt, but it is important that the circus as a whole does.


Alyssa Luis is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyssa.luis@uconn.edu.