The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said Thursday it will phase out the show's iconic elephants from its performances by 2018, after growing public concern about how the animals are treated led to the decision, The Associated Press reported.
Executives from Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company, said the decision to end the circus's century-old tradition of showcasing elephants was difficult and debated at length. Elephants have often been featured on Ringling's posters over the decades.
"There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," said Alana Feld, the company's executive vice president. "A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."
Within two hours of the announcement, animal rights groups took credit for the decision, saying that the pressure put on the circus ultimately led to Feld's decision.
"For 35 years PETA has protested Ringling Bros.' cruelty to elephants," Ingrid E. Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote in a statement.
"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,” Newkirk wrote. “If the decision is serious, then the circus needs to do it NOW."
Feld owns 43 elephants, and 29 of the giant animals live at the company's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. Thirteen animals will continue to tour with the circus before retiring to the center by 2018. One elephant is on a breeding loan to the Fort Worth Zoo.
Another reason for the decision, company President Kenneth Feld said, was that certain cities and counties have passed "anti-circus" and "anti-elephant" ordinances. The company's three shows visit 115 cities throughout the year, and Feld said it's expensive to fight legislation in each jurisdiction. It's also difficult to plan tours amid constantly changing regulations, he said.
"All of the resources used to fight these things can be put towards the elephants," Feld said during an interview at the Center for Elephant Conservation. "We're not reacting to our critics; we're creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant."
In Asheville, North Carolina, city leaders recently prohibited wild and exotic animal performances at the U.S. Cellular Center, the city's municipal venue. And in Los Angeles in 2014, the City Council banned the use of bullhooks by elephant trainers. A bullhook is a rod several feet long with a sharp metal point that trainers use to prod and direct elephants.
Animal rights activists say bullhooks are cruel and abusive, while circus leaders say they're needed for safety and point to federal approval of the devices.
The circus will continue to use other animals — this year it added a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders to its Circus Xtreme show. It will likely showcase more motorsports, daredevils and feats of humans' physical capabilities. Ringling's popular Canada-based competitor, Cirque du Soleil, features human acts and doesn't use wild animals.
The Associated Press