A Long-awaited Victory for Circus Elephants


The industrial exploitation of wild animals across a suite of different forms of intensive captivity is heart-breaking and cruel. But with the conviction of an ever-growing legion of compassionate citizens, change is coming.

Last March, when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it would be retiring its elephants from their long-suffering and demeaning performances, it was a potential game-changer in the movement to end captive exploitation of wild animals for human entertainment. Marking the end of such an enduring institution was momentous for the 11 elephants who currently tour with the circus (which has seen 12 elephants die in the last 10 years alone), and also for shifting public opinion about the use of animals for entertainment.

However, Ringling's announcement postponed the date of retirement until 2018. Month after month; year after year; unnaturally clinging to a deprived life.

Now the surprise January gift: Ringling has announced that it will end its elephant show in May 2016, a full year and a half ahead of schedule.

Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, attributes this move to unexpectedly quick completion of the elephants' new enclosures. However, a look at the bigger picture suggests that it was probably equally motivated by public attitudes that are very quickly turning against the mistreatment of these intelligent animals. As we have seen with SeaWorld following the release of the 2013 film Blackfish, opposition to animal suffering can snowball into an outcry that could sink a company. Such effective public mobilization surely was a key factor in finally getting through to Ringling and motivating the company to phase out its "iconic" elephant show.

While this announcement is an exciting development, we still have reason to be wary, and we still have a lot of work to do. Ringling's plan for the elephants is to move them to its "Center for Elephant Conservation" in Florida to join the 31 others who currently reside there. While this may spell the end for the frequent transport and performances endured by these elephants, other troubling aspects of their lives need to be addressed, and we should not relax until we receive guarantees that chaining, use of ankuses and harsh training will not be used. The goal must be to get the elephants to an environment that is as close to the wild as possible like the PAWS elephant sanctuary in California, with space and stable groups for natural elephant behavior -- we are convinced that the best future for these elephants lies at an affiliated and reputable sanctuary, not a breeding, research, or exhibition center that will continue to profit from their captivity.

We also can't forget about the other animals still dragged around the country and forced to perform in the circus. When will tigers and lions and other species get the same taste of freedom? It's time for circuses to go out of the wild animal business and retire all of its animal acts. Nor should we forget the elephants and other wild animals in other circuses in the U.S. and across the globe. For example, in the UK, we are still waiting for Government action on wild animals in circuses, despite a promise that a ban would be brought in by the end of 2015.

My hope and conviction, however, is that today's announcement will provide momentum for ending the practice of forced animal performance. We must carry this victory forward to tell the SeaWorlds and other exploitative animal-based enterprises yet again that their business model is outdated and unsustainable; to tell the other circuses around the country that the time has come for them to end their animal acts; and to broadcast to every person satisfying their greed by selling animal shows that they are clearly on the wrong side of both compassion and now history.

Keep Wildlife in the Wild,