The surprise decision by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to stop using elephants in its shows is a welcome move and a sea change in the company's longtime preference for making the world's largest land mammal the star of "The Greatest Show on Earth."
For decades, the company fought lawsuits by animal welfare groups that contended it was cruel to haul elephants across the country in rail cars and to train them to perform by either using or threatening to use sharp-ended bull hooks on them. Circus officials always maintained that their elephants were treated with the utmost care and pointed out that the company contributed to the conservation of endangered Asian elephants financially and through its Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida.
But in the end, as dozens of local jurisdictions adopted ordinances to ban either the use of bull hooks on elephants — as the city of Los Angeles did — or public performances that included exotic animals, the circus, wisely, bowed to public pressure. Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment Inc, the parent company of Ringling, called Thursday's decision part of the evolution of the circus. He said that the company was done battling with local governments on the issue of the bull hook, without which the circus cannot manage its elephants. "We are in the business of providing high quality live entertainment, not fighting City Hall," Payne said.
The 13 elephants in the traveling circuses will be retired to the 200-acre preserve at Ringling's conservation center, where there are already 29 elephants. The new policy won't be fully in effect until 2018, because, Payne said, it will take time to renovate and staff up the center. And since the L.A. bull hook ban, which passed in 2014, doesn't go into effect until 2017, that means the Ringling show that comes to Los Angeles this summer will include elephants (along with camels, tigers and other exotic animals the circus continues to use.)
Ringling is joining a long list of elephant-handling institutions to forsake the bull hook. The L.A. Zoo stopped using it in 2010. For Ringling, giving up the bull hook means giving up elephants altogether in circuses — and that's exactly what the company should be doing.