On March 5, 2015, Feld Entertainment, Inc., the world’s largest live family entertainment company and owner of the largest number of Asian elephants in North America, announced it would end elephant performances in its Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus by 2018. The news spread like wildfire and caught the attention of local and major news outlets across the country.
For more than 100 years, the Ringling elephants have been forced to don headdresses and perform tricks for paying patrons of the circus. In the name of entertainment, these gentle giants have been repeatedly hit, poked and beaten with bullhooks to train and “break” them so that they stay in line and perform stunts dictated by their handlers. These same animals, who walk in the wild up to 40 miles a day, have also been shackled with heavy metal chains for hours on end to confine and control them when they’re not performing and during transport from state to state on trains.
Feld Entertainment claims that a “mood shift” among its consumers and public concern over elephants touring with the circus helped lead it to make the change. The company immediately denied that animal welfare activism had anything to do with its decision. It’s abundantly clear, however, that efforts by AWI and others over several decades were the primary catalyst—uncovering Ringling’s mistreatment of elephants and exposing it to an increasingly disenchanted public.
Certainly (if Ringling doesn’t find a way to back out), the retirement of its elephants is an enormous step in the right direction. The decision, however, took far too long, and the further delay until 2018 is shameful. Presumably, the 13 performing elephants still on the road will continue to be struck with bullhooks and chained as they travel throughout the country in cramped, narrow, dark railway cars. Meanwhile, Ringling continues to subjugate tigers and other exotic wildlife, and has touted that it is adding camels to the mix.
Moreover, Feld Entertainment has indicated that these 13 elephants will join 29 others at its so-called Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC), a facility that is by no means a sanctuary. The CEC's general manager, Gary Jacobson, admitted under deposition in 2007 that nursing baby elephants are forcibly separated from their mothers, that most of the elephants 10 years of age or younger are kept standing on concrete floors for about 16 hours each day chained by a front and back leg, and that some elephants are kept on chains for more than 23 hours each day. He stated further that none of the adult males are allowed on grass. Both bullhooks and electric prods have been used on elephants at the CEC.
The CEC as it currently operates is no place to retire circus elephants that have already endured a lifetime of misery. Certainly, if past is prologue, Feld will display neither the expertise nor the willingness to provide these elephants with a species-appropriate environment that will not be compromised by commercial interest. These animals deserve more—much more. While the precise future of these elephants remains in question, AWI will continue to advocate for their prompt placement in a proper sanctuary.