Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, one of the United States' most famous circus companies, will eliminate elephants from its shows in the coming years, The Associated Press reported Thursday.
Feld Entertainment, the parent company for "The Greatest Show on Earth," told the AP it would phase out elephants by 2018, citing animal welfare concerns.
“This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers,” CEO Kenneth Feld said in a press statement. Feld’s 43 elephants, which form the largest herd in North America, will retire to a 200-acre sanctuary in central Florida.
"There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," Executive Vice President Alana Feld told the AP.
The company also cited the difficulty of fighting local legislation that would affect their shows. Late in 2014, Oakland, California, became the largest U.S. city to ban the use of bullhooks -- a hooked tool commonly inserted in elephants' skin to train and corral them. Los Angeles also enacted a bullhook ban that will go into effect in 2017.
“This is a startling and tremendously exciting announcement,” the Humane Society of the United States told The Huffington Post in an emailed statement. “With consumers now so alert to animal welfare issues, no business involved in any overt form of animal exploitation can survive in the long run.”
Ringling Bros. and other circuses have been under scrutiny from animal welfare groups for their treatment of elephants and other animals.
In 2014, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and others reached a settlement with Feld Entertainment to end a longstanding legal battle over unproven allegations of elephant mistreatment at the circus. The groups paid almost $16 million to cover Feld's legal costs for the 14-year litigation.
In late 2011, Feld Entertainment reached a $270,000 settlement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act occurring between 2007 and 2011. The settlement allowed the company to avoid admitting any wrongdoing or USDA violations. "Animal care is always a top priority at Ringling Bros.," Kenneth Feld said at the time.
The penalty was the largest to date in the Animal Welfare Act's four-decade history, according to Mother Jones, which reported on the alleged violations after a yearlong investigation. Each violation carried a maximum fine of $10,000, meaning the USDA was likely citing the company for at least 27 violations. 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."
“This is a tremendous victory for the elephants ... as well as for everyone who fought for this change,” ASPCA President and CEO Matt Bershadker said in a statement. “We continue to oppose using elephants or any wild or exotic animals in circuses, carnivals and other traveling animal shows."
This story has been updated with statements from Kenneth Feld, the Humane Society of the United States and ASPCA.