Ringling Bros. Circus Will Retire Its Performing Elephants by May

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It's the final curtain for the symbol of the circus.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Feld Entertainment said that all 11 elephants touring with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus would retire in May, a year and a half ahead of its previous 2018 target date. The performing pachyderms will transition to Florida, as one does in retirement, "joining the rest of the herd" at Feld's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation. The early end to the circus' elephant act is welcome news for animal rights activists, who are concerned over the company's treatment of its performing animals.

"Ringling had been one of the biggest defenders of this kind of archaic animal exploitation," wrote Humane Society president and CEO Wayne Pacelle in a blog post. "For wild animals, life in a traveling show amounts to an existence filled with deprivation, long-term confinement and unending misery."

According to Pacelle, exploitative treatment of animals like these circus elephants includes confinement to small cages, trailers and boxcars, where they are often chained up. Training the animals often involves the use of a bullhook, which Pacelle describes as a cross between a baseball bat and a fire poker. According to the Associated Press, Bullhooks have been banned in Los Angeles and Oakland, while other cities nationwide (such as Atlanta and Burlington, Vermont) have passed "anti-elephant" and "anti-circus" laws in response to allegations of animal cruelty toward the show's animals.

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P.T. Barnum introduced the first performing elephant, Jumbo, into his circus' act in 1882; when the elephants' impending retirement was first announced in March, the Feld family called it "a decision 145 years in the making," according to the Wall Street Journal. At the time, Feld Entertainment attributed the move to changing public opinion on animals in captivity, saying that it had become hard for the company to plan its 115-city tours as more and more municipalities adopted ordinances that banned the show. According to Monday's statement, Feld can now expedite its original plan because housing for the elephants won't take as long to construct as previously projected. 

"It's time to finally end the era of wild animal acts in circuses, and the accelerated timeline for Ringling's retirement of its elephant acts is a hopeful sign," Pacelle said in his post.

Chris O'Meara/AP

Indeed, it does seem like the time: When the 2013 documentary Blackfish came out, it exposed the chronic mistreatment of SeaWorld orcas and shocked viewers. The backlash tanked company profits, forcing SeaWorld to reconsider its policies and practices. According to animal rights groups like PETA, circus animals are handled much the same way. Following Feld's announcement, PETA unleashed a stream of tweets calling for Ringling Bros. to do more. Among their complaints? The possible use of the retired elephants as test subjects.

Alana Feld, Ringling's executive vice president and producer of its show, told the AP that the elephants heading to the CEC will be used for cancer research. Elephant cells contain 20 copies of the p53 gene versus the one copy found in human cells. P53 is a tumor suppressor and is able to detect the presence of substances that could damage a cell, and can signal either its repair or its destruction. Because elephants rarely get cancer, it's thought that their genetic makeup might hold promise for scientists searching for a cure in humans.

Although the prospect of this late-in-life career change doesn't sit well with PETA, the organization is all for the animal's retirement, lamenting how "years of living in shackles, held immobile on concrete floors, has left many elephants lame and sick." Who's not so pleased with Ringling's decision? Republican ringmaster Donald Trump, who offered a tweet in response to the announcement. As no one should be surprised to learn, he seems to love a good circus: