Feld Entertainment announced this morning that it will be removing Asian elephants from traveling performances of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus by 2018.
“It’s a decision that is a long time in the making,” said company spokesman Stephen Payne. “It’s a transition that we’re now beginning to prepare for.”
The elephants’ inclusion in the circus has been a 30-year controversy that has fueled a growing animal rights movement that has often taken extraordinary steps to fight Feld Entertainment’s use of elephants. There have been undercover investigations, an HBO documentary and anti-circus protests all over the country. There have also been lawsuits and in many instances, Feld has prevailed — last year a judge issued a $25.2 million settlement against the Humane Society and other animal-rights groups after he found the groups “paid a plaintiff” to testify against the circus.
But that victory was short-lived and animal rights groups soon found a new strategy to defeat the circus — bullhook bans. Cities like Los Angeles and Oakland banned the device, which has been used for decades in animal husbandry to control large animals like elephants. New York state was even considering a ban.
“We were facing this patchwork quilt of regulations that weren’t necessary,” Payne said. “It was like a legislative whack-a-mole” — one city would ban the bullhook, and then another would take up the issue and Feld would have to once more assemble his team of lawyers, lobbyist and executives to duke it out before another City Council.
After years of defending the use of elephants in the circus, Feld family patriarch Kenneth and daughters Alana, Nicole and Juliette decided it was time to rest the herd. The 13 elephants currently on the road will retire by 2018 to Feld’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.
THE SPIEL — THE FELD FAMILY EXPLAINS THEIR DECISION
The announcement early this morning surprised many on both sides of the battle. Here’s what Kenneth Feld had to say in a statement issued by the company:
“This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995. When we did so, we knew we would play a critical role in saving the endangered Asian elephant for future generations, given how few Asian elephants are left in the wild.
“Since then, we have had 26 elephant births. No other institution has done or is doing more to save this species from extinction, and that is something of which I and my family are extremely proud. This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers.”
Nicole and Alana Feld also shared some remarks:
“Our family has been the proud steward of the American institution that is Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and our elephants, for 45 years. It is a legacy that we hold near and dear to our hearts, and as producers of The Greatest Show On Earth, we feel we have a responsibility to preserve the esteemed traditions that everyone expects from a Ringling Bros. performance while striving to keep the show fresh and contemporary for today’s families. As the circus evolves, we can maintain our focus on elephant conservation while allowing our business to continue to meet shifting consumer preferences.”
Frequent circus opponent Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, issued a response to Feld’s decision:
“For 35 years PETA has protested Ringling Bros.’ cruelty to elephants. We know extreme abuse to these majestic animals occurs every single day, so if Ringling is really telling the truth about ending this horror, it will be a day to pop the champagne corks, and rejoice. … If the decision is serious, then the circus needs to do it NOW.”
THE REAL — DOING WHAT’S BEST FOR THE ELEPHANTS
The Feld family’s decision to remove the elephants from the circus is a surrender in a decades-long battle for both animal rights and the freedom of creative expression.
I’ve written about the Feld family for a number of years and I was always struck by their unwavering commitment to keep elephants in the circus. No elephants meant no circus — ban the bullhook and you’re essentially banning Ringling Bros. from coming to your town. It was all or nothing.
The animal rights activists had the same moxie. And as long as the circus toured with elephants, there would often be protestors. People who showed up with their kids outside venues like Staples Center in Los Angeles and screamed at families as they walked in to see The Greatest Show on Earth. A lot of these protestors used their kids to stage wildly confrontational demonstrations. That always bothered me. I don’t think kids can form anti-circus positions on their own, at least not the very young ones. I would see them holding graphic pictures of elephants that had been injured or even killed and think “so you’re protesting the exploitation of elephants by exploiting your own kid?”
The circus is a polarizing issue. It’s not just animal rights activists who criticize the circus. About this time last year, I visited Feld’s Ellenton, Fla., headquarters for a story I was doing for Venues Today, my old employer. I was closing out my trip by having dinner with a friend who worked at Feld and we struck up a conversation with a group of women at the table across from us.
“I don’t like the circus, I don’t like how they treat the animals,” one woman told us point-blank with a ‘nothing you are going to say will change my mind’ look on her face.
That didn’t stop her other friend at the table from trying.
“That’s because you’ve never been,” her friend said. “I grew up going to the circus as a kid and I love it.”
Is that the way the world is divided? Those who have been to the circus (supporters) and those who haven’t (either uninterested or in opposition).
Perhaps. There’s a great story about former Feld executive Allen Bloom, who created the circus’s Birthright program in the early 1990s.
According to a 2008 Venues Today article about Bloom, longtime Feld marketer Rodney Huey said,
‘We talked a long time about how to market the circus to kids. If we don’t grab this generation of kids, we may lose out,” he recalled of discussion in the early 90s. One brainstorming session, out of the blue, Bloom announced, “We’ll give every kid born in America a free ticket. It’s a birthright to see the Greatest Show on Earth.”
There’s a certain naive beauty in that mindset — the most obvious way to save the circus is simply to have every child in America go see the show. Simple right? Bloom was a big thinker and he probably left the “details” to his staff to figure out. As we know, Bloom’s vision was only partially realized. But you have to applaud him for seeing the bigger picture. That’s kind of the ethos of Feld Entertainment. The details can be worked out later — the only thing restricting what’s possible is the limits of our imagination.
On that same trip to Florida, I traveled to the Center for Elephant Conservation. I didn’t know what to expect — but I was happy to find the CEC wasn’t a giant holding cell for Asian elephants. It is a well-funded research facility and a huge habitat designed to protect and study Asian elephants. There were over a dozen college veterinary students attending classes that day, learning from the CEC’s on-staff scientists.
According to Stephen Payne, each elephant costs Feld about $65,000 a year for care. And the CEC manages a herd of about 40 elephants. These animals truly are endangered and still face threats from hunters — in 2013, poachers in Zimbabwe used cyanide to poison over 300 elephants and harvest their ivory tusks.
The Asian Elephant’s population size has decreased significantly in recent years as their habitats shrink due to increased demands for development and agriculture. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, “when elephants eat or trample crops, or injure or kill people, farmers are tempted to retaliate either by killing the elephants themselves or by helping poachers. Throughout Asia, hunters continue to target elephants, capitalizing on continued demand for their ivory tusks.”
Payne said the company will continue to care for the elephants even after they come off the road in 2018.
“We have a lifetime commitment to these animals,” he said. “And that will become the focal point of our efforts,” shifting from touring to research and conservation.