Ringling Bros. Leaves Town For Good Come May

After 146 years, the self-proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth is pulling up stakes this May. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, a vestige of the day when troupes of performers traveled from city to Podunk bringing jobs, thrills and cotton candy to kids of all ages, cited pressure from animal rights activists and declining ticket sales as the primary reasons — among several — to disband. 

“Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus removed elephants from its performances last May, and the company said ticket sales then dropped drastically,” writes Trevor Hughes for USA Today. “The company had long battled animal rights activists in costly court skirmishes … but apparently lost the larger fight over public opinion.”

In 2014, the Humane Society and other groups agreed to pay Feld Entertainment $15.75 million to settle a 14-year legal case that included claims by a former elephant handler who allegedly had been “bribed” by activists to make up claims of abuse, as Jacob Gershman reported for the Wall Street Journal



The announcement of the shutdown, made late Saturday, took many people by surprise. “There seemed to be a collective gasp online, along with a smattering of nostalgia,” observes Amy B Wang for the Washington Post.

“The tremors … are already being felt in Manatee County, [Fla.,] where the circus’ corporate parent, Feld Entertainment Studios, is headquartered,” writes Richard Dymond for the Bradenton Herald. “A media briefing at Feld Entertainment has been scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday where Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive officer of Feld Entertainment, is expected to talk about how the closing will impact an estimated 500 people who perform and work on the two circus shows.” 

The Feld family has owned the circus since 1967. While acknowledging a “dramatic drop” in attendance since its elephants were retired, COO Juliette Feld, Kenneth’s daughter, said it was the “right decision” and told the AP’s Tamara Lush in an exclusive interview that it would continue to operate the Center for Elephant Conservation, which is in its 20th year.

“‘The competitor in many ways is time,’ said [Kenneth] Feld, adding that transporting the show by rail and other circus quirks — such as providing a traveling school for performers' children — are throwbacks to another era. ‘It's a different model that we can't see how it works in today's world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price. So you've got all these things working against it,’” Lush reports.

Ringling Bros. “isn’t the only circus to have called it quits recently. Cole Bros., a touring circus founded in 1884, stopped performing in 2016 and donated its archives to the Circus World museum in Baraboo, Wisc.,” writes Charles Passy for the Wall Street Journal. “The Big Apple Circus, a more intimately scaled circus based in New York, also suspended operations and is planning a bankruptcy auction in February.”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which claims 5 million members worldwide, and other animal rights groups, celebrated the decision.

“As of May, the saddest show on earth for wild animals will end. Thirty-six years of PETA protests, of documenting animals left to die, beaten animals, and much more, has reduced attendance to the point of no return,” a PETA blog post says. “All other animal circuses, roadside zoos, and wild animal exhibitors, including marine amusement parks like SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, must take note: society has changed, eyes have been opened, people know now who these animals are, and we know it is wrong to capture and exploit them.”

“Ringling has two touring circuses this season and will perform 30 shows between now and May. Major stops include Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. The final shows will be on May 7 in Providence, R.I., and on May 21 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.,” Christopher Mele reports for the New York Times. “The final appearance of the circus in New York City will be from Feb. 23 to March 23 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.”

Ringling Bros.’s demise is giving rise to mixed emotions in many people — fond memories of good times mixed with empathy for the animals, whose plight was unknown to earlier generations.

The 86-year-old survivor of a 1944 fire that killed 167 and injured 700 in a Ringling tent pitched in Hartford, Conn. tells the Courant’s Kathleen McWilliams that despite his vivid memory of the tragedy, he still loves going to the  circus.

“I love circuses and I love the Ringling Bros. circus and I've gone many times and when they decided to exclude the elephants I was heartbroken,” he said. “I understand they're going to be at the XL Center in April and you know who's going to be there? Me.”

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