For decades, the beloved tent spectacular known as the "Greatest Show on Earth" has featured elephants and other wild animals in its circus acts. On Thursday, the owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus made a surprise announcement that it plans to phase out elephants from its traveling circus performances over the next three years.
Feld Entertainment, the Florida-based company that owns Ringling, said that 13 Asian elephants currently traveling with the three Ringling Bros. circus units will be relocated to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida by 2018.
The 13 elephants will join the rest of the Ringling Bros. herd of more than 40 elephants, the company said in the announcement.
Over the years, animal rights activists have protested at Ringling Bros. shows around the country over the company's use of elephants. Asian elephants, which come from southern and southeast Asian countries, including India and Sri Lanka, are an endangered species.
In the past, circus owners have gone to court over allegations of elephant abuse. A 2000 lawsuit brought by a handful of animal rights groups against the circus alleging elephant mistreatment was dismissed, and the circus was eventually awarded millions of dollars in settlements.
Feld executives said in a release Thursday that "as the circus evolves, we can maintain our focus on elephant conservation while allowing our business to continue to meet shifting consumer preferences."
The activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been vocal over the years about Ringling's use of elephants. On Thursday, PETA said in a news release that "if Ringling is really telling the truth about ending this horror, it will be a day to pop the Champagne corks, and rejoice."
But the group added, "many of the elephants are painfully arthritic, and many have tuberculosis, so their retirement day needs to come now."
The Ringling elephant center was founded in 1995. The 200-acre facility is located in central Florida, between Tampa and Orlando.