By any standard, today’s decision by the Ringling Circus to phase out its elephant acts represents a seismic shift in the use of nonhuman animals as clowns.
For years, Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling, has been doubling down on its determination not to give in to pressure from animal protection campaigns. No matter that in 2011 the company paid out $270,000 in fines to settle 27 alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act after a Mother Jones investigation revealed elephants were “whipped with bullhooks, trapped in train cars filled with their own feces, and chained in place for a good part of their lives.” Feld just kept going. Last year, they trumpeted a victory over the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the U.S. and other groups who had to settle an ill-conceived lawsuit by paying Feld more than $25 million.
But now the grassroots pressure has just grown too strong. As Alana Feld, daughter of company President Kenneth Feld, told the Associated Press yesterday:
“There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”
Ken Feld acknowledged that more and more cities and counties are passing ordinances banning circuses that use elephants. And he conceded that having elephants performing tricks is today’s equivalent of circuses 50 years ago using disabled humans.
Feld noted that when his father bought the circus in 1967, there was still a human sideshow featuring acts such as the bearded lady and other human oddities. His father did away with that, he said. “We’re always changing and we’re always learning.”
The Mother Jones investigation revealed that elephants were “whipped with bullhooks, trapped in train cars filled with their own feces, and chained in place for a good part of their lives.” The elephants are also “lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity.”
Feld also admitted under oath that Ringling trainers routinely beat the elephants with bullhooks, whipped them, and subjected them to electric shock punishment.
An animal trainer also blew the whistle to the animal protection group PETA, producing photos of babies being separated from their mothers so they can be trained to perch on stools, stand on their back legs or on their heads, and perform all the other humiliating tricks that are entirely contrary to their nature.
Touring the country with dozens of elephants is also becoming increasingly expensive. And almost every show is now being picketed by protestors. The Chicago Tribune speculates that while Ken Feld remains “a diehard defender of performing animals, [he] has passed day-to-day control to his daughters, who likely express the changed sentiments of a younger generation … Feld likely decided that it made sense to get ahead of that story.”
The elephants won’t be retired for another three years, and, as of now, there are no plans to retire other animals. Indeed, Ringling has recently added a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders to its Circus Xtreme show.
But it’s still a huge change in the circus world. And you can assume that no one is feeling the ground shaking under their feet more than the folks at SeaWorld and other marine circuses, which are now very publicly imploding under the relentless fire of a national grassroots campaign.