It was a show called the “Greatest Show on Earth” — but it wasn’t so great for the animals involved.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed across the country for decades, and while fans hailed it as an American tradition, the circus faced intense scrutiny for its use of live animals in its acts, particularly elephants.
That controversy, combined with waning audience attendance and rising costs, led to the circus packing up the big top, performing its final show in 2017. But now, after a five year hiatus, Ringling Bros. is making a comeback — this time, without the use of animals.
For over a century, animals like elephants, tigers and lions were a staple of circuses, trained to perform tricks. While often a draw for audiences, it also drew the ire of animal rights activists, who long argued that keeping wild animals in captivity for entertainment was wrong, and that constantly transporting them around the country would cause them distress.
Animal groups like PETA and ASPCA were vocally against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, citing their long record of poor treatment and animal deaths. Outcry continued to grow as tastes changed: audiences became less interested in the traditional circus and more wary of how the animals were being used.
In 2015, the circus announced they would no longer be using animals in their shows, and the remaining elephants were brought to a sanctuary. Two years later, Ringling Bros. performed their final show.
But now, they’re making a comeback — and thankfully, this time they’ve learned their lesson and won’t be incorporating any animals.
“We will not be touring animals,” producer Juliette Feld Grossman told Today.
The circus is planning to resume shows next year, following two years of planning and discussions of how to make the circus popular with modern audiences. Producers acknowledged that the show often failed to keep up with changing tastes, including in their use of animals.
Instead, the revived circus will focus more on awe-inspiring stunts from human performers. “That’s the past, and the great thing is that we’ve had a blank piece of paper to reimagine,” said producer Kenneth Feld.
The news that the revived circus has no interest in bringing back their animals is welcome news for the animal activists who long pushed back against the company — even PETA, who called themselves Ringling’s “most vocal opponent and nemesis,” celebrated their change of heart.
“Ringling is returning with a bang, transforming the saddest show on Earth into a dazzling display of human ingenuity after 146 years of animal abuse,” PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Rachel Mathews said in a statement.
The animal group had previously taken over the web domain “Circuses.com” and used it to protest the circus — and now, as a peace offering, they’re giving it back to Ringling.
“PETA is cheering on the animal-free revamp and will gladly hand over Circuses.com to celebrate the spotlight’s turn toward talented human professionals who choose to perform.”
And thankfully, the circus’ former elephants also had a happy ending: last year, the 12 elephants made it to their new home in the White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida.
“We are thrilled to give these elephants a place to wander and explore,” said Mark and Kimbra Walter, the philanthropists who funded the conservation.
“A lot of kids have this dream of running away and joining the circus,” conservationist Michelle Gadd, who oversaw the project, told CBS News. “Well, I was that kid who wanted to run away and let all the animals out of the circus.”
“They don’t need to be ridden or trained or do tricks or travel the world. Just let them be where they are and there’s nothing more beautiful than that.”
We’re so happy to hear that no animals will be used in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus once it makes its return, allowing circus fans to enjoy the classic show without anyone having to exploit animals.
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