We’re all delighted that the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus will be folding its tent and closing shop in a few months.
Just a year ago, in the face of pressure from the animal protection movement Ringling President Kenneth Feld shut down the elephant acts, admitting that “a lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”
The Feld family, which has owned Ringling since 1967, hoped that this concession would pull ticket sales out of their slump. Feld had fought to the bitter end to keep the elephant performances. But increasingly, circus goers had to run a gauntlet of demonstrations and protests just to get into the tent, and more and more cities and counties were passing ordinances banning circuses that used elephants.
For people with low self-esteem, there’s nothing quite like being able to watch great iconic animals being humiliated for our entertainment.Ringling had agreed to pay $270,000 in fines to settle “alleged” violations of the Animal Welfare Act like elephants being whipped with bull hooks. Whistle blowers, undercover videos, and a general drumbeat of unflattering publicity were becoming bad for business.
Feld said the circus could go on without the elephants. But now, less than a year later, he says it can’t. Not even with all the other animals – lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas – still performing circus tricks.
Elephants have always been the key attraction at the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus. P.T. Barnum launched his “Greatest Show on Earth” after mounting an expedition to Sri Lanka in 1850 to capture 10 elephants and bring them back to New York.
Upon their arrival, they were harnessed to a chariot and paraded down Broadway. Shortly after that, Barnum offered to test out the newly completed Brooklyn Bridge by having the elephants march across it. City officials declined the offer, but Barnum did it anyway.
Audiences flocked to see the elephants. Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion was effusive:
“It is astonishing to think how docile these huge creatures are, when it is remembered that [it is] but a brief time since they were running wild in the jungle.”
(No mention of the whips and bull hooks, of course.)
The Ringling brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1906, and the conga line of elephants continued to be the top attraction. In 1924, they were made part of the Macy’s Christmas Parade. And when the Feld family purchased the circus in 1967, they paraded the elephants into town wherever they went.
But in the 1970s and 80s, as the animal protection movement grew, word began to spread about what it really took to get elephants to perform on command. Mother Jones chronicles the horrific practices of what it calls “The Cruelest Show on Earth,” documenting how Ringling talked of “animal training based on mutual respect and positive reinforcement” while torturing them in the training sessions.
To counter the bad publicity, the Felds launched a multi-million-dollar PR effort to persuade people that all was well and that the elephants really enjoyed their lives as performing animals being trucked from one city to the next.
The PR efforts did their job. Audiences continued to flock to the big tent as people allowed themselves to believe that the animals were being treated with love and care. But it was becoming harder and harder for them to cope with the cognitive dissonance of wanting to see the elephants dance and stand on stools but having to run a gauntlet of demonstrations with horrific pictures right there at the circus entrance.
Finally, with ticket sales falling, the Felds decided to bite the bullet and bring an end to the elephant acts. They acknowledged that times were changing in the way people viewed elephants. But they were confident that the circus could still flourish, even without performing pachyderms.
It didn’t work. Audience quickly grew bored by what they saw as run-of-the-mill stuff like tigers jumping through hoops. For people with low self-esteem, there’s nothing quite like being able to sit and watch the greatest iconic species being humiliated for our entertainment. And if they couldn’t get to see elephants dancing, spinning, doing handstands and being generally humiliated, they didn’t want to go to the circus at all.
These kinds of people were quite upfront in telling their local news media that the reason they’d stopped going to Ringling wasn’t out of concern for the animals. It was that donkeys, llamas, alpacas, even tigers just weren’t as much fun, and that without the elephants, it wasn’t worth the price of a ticket any longer.
You can’t help but wonder how much has basically changed in our attitudes to our fellow animals in the century since P.T. Barnum paraded his first shipload of elephants down Broadway.