A Bittersweet Day for the Circus

03/18/2015 09:49 am ET | Updated May 13, 2015


The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, owned by Feld Entertainment, recently announced they are removing the Asian elephant show from their traveling performances. Like many parents, I do have fond memories of going to the circus to see the elephants and my children love when the circus comes to town. My first question after I heard about Ringling decision was, What will happen to the elephants? My 10-year-old wondered the same.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn the 13 elephants in the traveling circus are heading to a 200-acre conservation facility in Florida, the Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC). Who knew the circus was in the business of animal conservation? But what a wonderful thing.

I cannot pretend to be a conservation expert, but a glance at Feld's CEC is impressive. They founded the Center in 1995 and it is home to the largest and self-sustaining herd of Asian elephants. Their program boasts the most successful breeding program in the Western Hemisphere. I thought the Giant Panda reproduction cycle was complicated, but I have since discovered that elephants have a longer gestation period than any other mammal with a gestation of almost 22 months. And since the Center's inception, 26 elephants have been born there!

Over the years, I followed the media claims detailing abusive treatment towards circus animals. Animal activist groups detailed stories about elephants being beaten, traumatized, and starved into submission -- this would alarm even a non-animal lover.

With every visit to the Ringling Brothers Circus, I questioned the validity of these animal rights activists claims. How could Feld successfully run a business for decades that has included animals and has been regulated and monitored by government agencies and veterinary care groups?

It just doesn't add up.

Ringling Brothers Circus has always given me the impression of being a world class entertainment experience that families can enjoy together. In the age of questionable and obscene content on television, the radio and the internet, the circus is one of the last forms of live entertainment that offers a wholesome experience.

Feld Entertainment said that their decision to discontinue the Asian elephant show is in response to changing consumer sentiment and anti-circus legislation that has popped up in cities and counties across the U.S. As a result, it is difficult to bring the traveling circus to those areas.

I can imagine that animal rights activists played at least a small part as well. Within hours of Ringling's announcement, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and other animal rights groups were claiming victory.

My guess is the animal rights activists are probably not impressed with the Center for Elephant Conservation, and my question for them would be: where do they think the elephants should go? Is it better to return them to Asia? As far as I can tell, it does not seem like there is any other public or private organization that has the capacity or desire to preserve the Asian elephants, including the activist groups.

If circuses are guilty of mistreating animals, then the animal rights groups might need to re-evaluate their approach. Ironically, last year, the Humane Society and other animal rights groups paid a hefty sum in a $15.75 million settlement to Feld Entertainment, as a result of a lawsuit that was found to be frivolous and without merit. Additionally, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA paid Feld Entertainment a $9.3 million payment for making false claims in a U.S. District Court.

Ultimately, Feld's decision appears to be the result of changing consumer perceptions and ongoing anti-circus and anti-elephant litigation and legislation. Given the amount that animal rights groups have paid to Feld Entertainment for making false claims, I am unsure how these activists can claim victory.

My kids favorite has always been the elephants, which have been part of the circus since an Asian elephant named Jumbo, was brought to the States in 1882. We are sad to see them leaving the big top, but we understand the times are changing. The positive result is that the elephants will retire to, what appears to be, a state-of-the art facility with experts who can properly care for them.

By 2018, the remaining 13 elephants currently traveling with the Ringling Brothers Circus will join the other Asian elephants in Florida. We know the animal rights groups will not miss the elephants in the circus, but our family will miss them. Perhaps a trip to a certain elephant conservation center in Florida is in our future.