Why is Ringling Bros. retiring its circus elephants early?

By Orion McCarthy 

IN A VICTORY for elephants and animal rights activists, the largest circus in the United States announced that it will retire all of its remaining performing elephants by May 2016.

The end of Ringling Brothers’ elephant performances comes two years earlier than the circus group initially pledged. Eleven Asian elephants will join 30 other retired elephants at the Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, where they will live out their days in captivity.


Elephants perform during a Ringling Brothers Circus performance, the self proclaimed “Greatest Show on Earth”. Photo Credit: Heinz Kluetmeier, PR Newswire.

Approximately 32,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild, with 250 living in captivity in the United States. The species is listed as endangered by the IUCN, and the trade in Asian elephants has been prohibited by CITES since 1975. This means that most Asian elephants younger than 40 years of age living in zoos, sanctuaries, and circuses in the United States were born and raised in captivity.

Circus elephants lead demanding and stressful lives. A recently retired Ringling elephant named Baby visited 45 cities in the final years of her career, traveling 18,000 miles in modified rail cars and performing up to 190 days a year. She was retired after 46 years of performing due to behavioral changes attributed to her demanding lifestyle.

Ringling Brothers’ decision to phase out elephant performances was not made lightly. The company’s $600 million annual revenue is heavily dependent on its main attraction – performing elephants. But mounting pressure from animal rights groups, legal obstacles, and a change in public opinion have forced the company’s hand.

Public Opinion and Animal Rights

The retirement of Ringling Brothers’ elephants reflects a drastic change in public opinion on animal rights over the past decade. A survey conducted in the year 2000 showed that 80% of Americans supported the notion that animals belong in the circus. Fifteen years later, 69% of US respondents report being somewhat to very concerned about the treatment of circus animals.

This change in thinking hasn’t been limited to circuses, with the public view of zoos and marine parks turning more skeptical as well.

The treatment of large, intelligent animals such as elephants, apes, and whales has commanded the most attention. More than ever, people support the notion that massive, sentient animals should be left in the wild, rather than held in captivity or made to perform.

Circus vs Zoo

A circus elephant (left) performs, while zoo elephants (right) display more natural behavior. Some captive bred animals stand little change of surviving if released into the wild, and many AZA accredited zoos and aquariums do a good job of caring for their wildlife. Still, the growing public outcry over animal performances has sparked in a period of change and adaptation for the captive animal industry.  Photo credit: Rass Perry, Y. Kochetkov.

The recent bout of animal rights fervor began in 2009 with the release of several documentaries uncovering severe animal abuse, including The Cove and Food Inc. The Cove, which exposed the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, showed how the demand for performing animals negatively impacts wild ecosystems and traumatizes individual animals. An undercover video taken by PETA was also released in 2009, depicting elephant abuse at the hands of Ringling Brothers trainers.

The producers of The Cove doubled down with their next documentary Blackfish, highlighting the abuse faced by orcas and other whales at the hands of marine parks such as SeaWorld.

The exposés altered the public’s view of animal rights in the United States. In a 2015 survey, 32% of Americans asserted that animals should have the same legal protections as people, up from 25% in 2008, and a majority of respondents reported concern over animal treatment in circuses and marine parks.

Gallup poll animal rightsIn response to public outcry, the US government moved to enhance animal welfare. In 2011, the USDA fined Ringling Brothers $270,000 for 27 separate violations of the Animal Rights Act, and the municipalities of Los Angeles and Oakland banned the use of bullhooks, the sharp tool used by circus trainers to corral elephants. The National Institute of Health also announced an end to the use of chimpanzees for medical research, following the lead of several European nations that previously banned the practice.

Public and governmental pressure forced those in the captive animal industry to adapt. In addition to Ringling Brothers’ move to retire its elephants, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums moved to ban dolphins sourced from Taiji, the infamous cove featured in the 2009 documentary, in all accredited aquariums.

The Future of the Circus

It remains to be seen if Ringling Brothers will suffer financially from the loss of its elephant performances. While elephants are one of the circus’s main attractions, failure to heed public outcry could be costly. SeaWorld has resisted public outcry against its orca shows since the release of Blackfish and has suffered as a result. The marine park has reported dismal attendance and plummeting share prices ever since the film’s 2013 debut.

Seaworld backlash

SeaWorld stock plummeted in the months following the release of the documentary Blackfish. Photo credit: The Washington Post.

While the move by Ringling Brothers could help to bolster its public image, the company still uses lions, tigers, and other animals in its circus act, and isn’t likely to win over animal rights supporters by just retiring elephants. To truly satisfy public opinion, all circus animals will likely have to go.

What YOU can do

The end of animal performances doesn’t have to mean an end of the circus. Acrobats, jugglers, and clowns deserve attention and praise for their incredible performance abilities. You can support them by attending animal-free circuses. Several well-known circus troupes, such as Cirque du Soleil, are animal-free and still manage to be incredibly popular.


Animal-free circuses such as Cirque du Soleil provide an entertaining and ethical alternative to conventional circus performances. Photo credit: Bellagio Entertainment.

In addition to attending animal-free circuses, here are some ways you can avoid inadvertently supporting animal performances.

  • Only visit AZA accredited zoos and aquariums (or EAZA accredited if you are in Europe). Many roadside zoos, animal theme parks, and petting zoos lack the space, equipment, or funding to properly care for their animals, and they are not required to have any conservation involvement. While only 229 out of nearly 2400 zoos in the United States are accredited, most large city zoos and aquariums are certified by the AZA.
  • Opt for animal welfare over entertainment. Avoid circuses, carnivals, zoos, and aquariums that encourage you to interact with wild animals or that subject them to perform. While Ringling Brothers took an important first step by committing to retire their elephants, the company still uses animals from a number of species in their performances.
  • If you haven’t already, watch documentaries such as The Cove, Blackfish, and Food Inc. These movies do a good job of exposing animal rights abuses, and offer a compelling moral argument for ending harmful practices.

When it comes to animal rights, you can easily make a positive difference by choosing to support organizations that align with your moral and ethical views. The powers that be are listening; speak with your wallet and you can affect change.

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  1. Excellent blog post! Great work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Animal welfare is an important aspect of conservation, and the end of elephant performances is a definite step in the right direction!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great, informative post! Cirque du Soleil is such an amazing show, and an example of how successful an animal-free circus can be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely a step in the right direction to be sure!


  3. The elephants wanted a pay raise like the hamberger flippers at McDonalds up to $15 an hour.


  4. I love elephants! There are still ways to enjoy animals without harming their growth or life.


    1. Definitely! From nature documentaries to accredited zoos, there are plenty of ways to appreciate the beauty and importance of elephants!


  5. […] and continuing activism by filmmakers helped to secure major victories for captive animals in 2016: Ringling Bros., the largest circus in the United States, retired all of its remaining performing elephants while […]


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