Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Just Officially Closed Down
By Carey Wedler
In a sign of the times, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed for the last time Sunday evening. The show is the latest to succumb to changing societal attitudes toward forcing animals to perform in entertainment acts for humans.
The last installment of the “greatest show on earth,” as the circus called itself, was performed at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., and a second faction of the traveling show put on its last show in Rhode Island last month.
As USA Today summarized, many shows with animal-based entertainment “have struggled with declining attendance, shrinking attention spans and shifting social pressure brought to bear by activists who have argued the animals are sometimes poorly treated.”
Indeed, Barnum and Bailey has come under fierce scrutiny for alleged mental and physical abuse inflicted on elephants, tigers, and other animals used in the shows. As National Geographic explains, animals forced into training for human amusement are subject to severe stress in order to be broken of their wild instincts:
“These stresses are exacerbated by the fact that the animals must perform unnatural physical acts: bears trained to prance on tightropes; elephants made to balance on chairs; tigers forced to jump through flaming hoops. The training, lifelong and relentless, is especially hard on performing animals.
“It’s the same with any wild animal forced to interact regularly with humans. For an animal to be tamed, it must be ‘broken’ early. For elephants that means being struck with bullhooks—sharp metal poles—from a very early age, until they’re docile enough to follow commands. For elephants in circuses, the training extends further. They don’t just have to be tame enough to give tourists rides—they need to twirl and balance on their hind legs. Every time an elephant doesn’t complete a perfect turn, it may be hit or otherwise disciplined. If a big cat doesn’t behave, it may be whipped and deprived of food.”
In 2015, Barnum and Bailey actually won a multi-million dollar lawsuit waged by animal rights activists regarding abuse against elephants, though the company eventually opted to stop using them in their performances the same year, vowing to phase them out (they also won a similar 2012 lawsuit). “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants,” said Alana Feld, an executive at Feld Entertainment — which owns the circus — at the time (in January, executives with Feld acknowledged that removing elephants from the show was a key factor in its demise). Still, the circus continued to use tigers, horses, lions, camels, and dogs, a move that evidently did not help their business model.
“Yes, people no longer have a taste for that kind of entertainment,” said Lisa Lange, senior vice president of communications for PETA, as reported by NPR this week. “But we believe it’s because they now know what that kind of entertainment costs those animals.“
Lange said Barnum and Bailey has been a target of PETA’s for over three decades and expressed optimism at people’s changing attitudes, as did Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society. “It’s happening across the economy. It’s happening across our culture,” he said. “We’re really seeing a rising tide of consciousness when it comes to the treatment of animals.“
Barnum and Bailey is not the only organization affected by these changing attitudes. Sea World has come under intense fire over the last several years for its treatment of orcas. The marine life park recently opted to shut down its captive orca breeding program amid slumping profits. Similarly, the National Aquarium in Baltimore recently announced its intentions to shut down its dolphin exhibit and release the marine mammals into an ocean sanctuary.
Though these changes have come voluntarily through the market, lawmakers are also taking another approach. A bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives seeks to ban the use of exotic and wild animals in traveling circus shows and other mobile entertainment acts.
If, after 146 of business, one of the best-known circus acts in the United States has hit a dead end, it appears animal rights activists have good reason to be hopeful for the future.