Ringling Brothers Makes A Jumbo Decision: Will Retire Elephants By 2018

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said yesterday that it would retire elephants — a featured marketing mascot for more than a century — from its performances by 2018 in response concerns about their treatment.

“There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers,” Alana Feld, EVP of Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company, tells The Associated Press’ Tamara Lush, who broke the story yesterday. “A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”

As TheNew York Times’ Richard Pérez-Peña points out in his lede: “In the 133 years since P. T. Barnum bought his first one, no animal has been so closely identified with the circus as the elephant, starring under the big top, adorning posters and ritually announcing the circus’s arrival with a gawk-worthy parade into town — in the case of New York, through the Midtown Tunnel.”



“Animal rights groups took credit for generating the public concern that forced the company to announce its pachyderm retirement plan on Thursday” writes the AP’s Lush. “But Ringling Bros.' owners described it as the bittersweet result of years of internal family discussions.”

A news release quickly issued by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in fact, reads: “Victory! Ringling Phasing Out Elephant Performances, But Should Elephants Spend 3 More Years In Boxcars?” It goes on to recount the tragic end of several performers as well as training practices it characterizes as “extreme abuse.”

“We're not reacting to our critics; we're creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant,” Kenneth Feld said, “as he broke the news that the last 13 performing elephants will retire by 2018, joining 29 other pachyderms at the company's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida,” Lush writes.

TheWashington Post’s Elahe Izadi recounts the history of animal rights activists “lengthy crusade to compel Feld Entertainment Inc. to stop using elephants,” pointing out that there have been “years of controversy, litigation and, more recently, legislation.”

Feld did admit that the increasing number of local ordinances played a part in the decision in that challenging them proved costly. “All of the resources used to fight these things can be put toward the elephants,” he told the AP

“Fans at a Thursday morning circus performance at the Nassau Coliseum were disappointed by the decision to idle the elephants,” write the New York Daily News’ Caitlin Nolan and Sasha Goldstein, quoting two of them — one of whom asked, “If it’s about animal cruelty, why not the other animals? What about the tigers?”

“Fans of all ages clapped and cheered when the five pachyderms trotted to the center ring, where they performed a variety of stunts from balancing on tiny stools to tossing beach balls into the crowd,” Nolan and Goldstein report.

“I am a little bit surprised. The thing that makes Ringling unique, in the industry — in terms of entertainment, circuses, live, traveling shows at all, really — is they have this elephant to sell,” Susan Nance, author of Entertaining Elephants: Animal Agency and the Business of the American Circus, tells Jessica Goldstein on ThinkProgress.org. “They had a herd of elephants. That was so integral to their brand, being the last big American-style circus. I thought they’d be stubborn forever.”

CNN’s Todd Leopard sketches the history of elephants in the circus in a piece carrying the worried hed: “Does A Circus Without Elephants Have A Future?” Fret not. In the end, Janet Davis, an American studies professor at the University of Texas, “believes the loss of elephants won't affect the circus' bottom line.”

The first circus elephant reportedly was Jumbo — the star of Phineas T. Barnum's “‘Greatest Show on Earth, where, it is said, he brought in the largest crowds in the history of the circus,” as the Awesome Stories website relates. “Captured in Africa, Jumbo spent time in London — where he was greatly loved until Barnum purchased him in 1882, much to the chagrin of Londoners.

Jumbo was struck and killed by a locomotive in 1885. His skeleton was displayed for many years in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, according to Wikipedia, but are now in storage. His stuffed remains were the mascot of Tufts University — Barnum was a benefactor — until a fire in Barnum Hall in 1975 left only enough a piece of his tail and enough ashes to fill an empty peanut butter jar, according to a history on the Tufts’ website.

“Jumbo's spirit lives on in his hybrid container (a Peter Pan Crunchy lid on a Skippy jar), and since 1975, university athletes have rubbed the jar for good luck,” according to the history.

His successors are, in their way, feeling a little bit of that fortune rubbing off on them.

Next story loading loading..