Ringling Bros. to retire its traveling elephants; some circus fans upset


Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is dropping its elephant acts. Thirteen traveling-circus elephants will retire to Florida by 2018.

We asked a random sampling of L.A. residents what they thought of that, and the collective response was a cry of dismay.

“That’s on their logo and everything,” said 27-year-old Victor Murillo. “It wouldn’t be a circus without an elephant. That’s like saying, ‘No trapeze artist.’ ”


But Ringling Bros. has been a longtime target of animal-rights protesters for its use of elephants. Delcianna Winders, general counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, pointed out alleged abuses of the elephants, including the use of bullhooks -- “a fireplace-poker-type device” -- for training and separation of babies from mothers at too early an age.

In 2013, Los Angeles became the first U.S. city to ban the sharp-tipped bullhooks. That year, the council agreed to give circuses three years to alter their handling of elephants or remove the animals from their shows.

Last year, Oakland also banned the use of bullhooks by elephant trainers. Ringling Bros. reacted to the Oakland ban with an announcement that its visits to the city would cease within four years.

When the L.A. ban was announced, an official with Ringling parent company Feld Entertainment said, “We’re not going to come to L.A. without our elephants.”

“The Asian elephant has been a symbol of Ringling Bros. for 144 years,” Stephen Payne, Feld’s vice president of corporate communications, said at the time.

On Thursday, Payne was asked about the company’s change of heart.

“What happened in L.A. was emblematic of what has happened in other places,” Payne said. “And we’re in the business of creating a circus. We want to put smiles on families’ faces. We’re not in the legislative battle business.”


He said the Feld family had “agonized” over its decision, knowing that there was going to be a number of circus fans who would be upset. But, he said, there also were “changing sentiments” among Ringling customers regarding the elephants.

In the end, the company decided “the circus has to evolve,” Payne said.

By 2018, the 13 traveling Asian elephants will be relocated to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, a 200-acre site in Florida where Ringling already has a herd, according to Feld.

Winders said PETA was “of course thrilled with the announcement, assuming that Ringling is indeed serious about this.”

She said, however, that PETA objected to the three-year timeline for removal of the elephants from the traveling circus.

“They need to show they’re serious by making this effective immediately,” Winders said.

For those questioned by the L.A. Times on Thursday, the loss of the elephants as part of the circus struck a personal chord.

Murillo remembered attending the circus with siblings. He said he’d also taken his two children, who loved the elephant acts.

“I would understand maybe taking away the lions -- but elephants?” he said. “That goes along with the circus.”

Rossana Salaris, 46, was in L.A. on business from New York City. She said she remembered visiting the circus as a child and watching those “magnificent creatures.”

“Circus and elephants, Cracker Jack and peanuts. It all kind of goes together,” she said. “Kids are not going to experience the thrill of the elephants anymore. ... It’s kind of taking away some of the joys of the circus.”

Critics would argue that the elephants’ welfare outweighs those joys -- an idea that Ringling seems to have embraced.

“This decision was bittersweet,” Payne said, “but it became apparent it was in the best interests of our company, our people and our elephants.”

Payne noted that those who enjoy the elephant acts would have a chance to see them in July when the circus comes to Staples Center.

But he wasn’t sure about the elephant walk. For 90 years, the Ringling Bros. elephant walk was a Los Angeles tradition. In L.A. and other cities across the U.S., fans would turn out to see the animals taken on foot from a train stop to the circus grounds.

Beginning in 1922, the circus elephants and their handlers traversed the streets of downtown Los Angeles. In 2009, L.A. Now followed along with the line of 11 Asian elephants. Each animal held its leader’s tail with its trunk.

“It’s awesome,” said one early-morning bystander.

A number of others disagreed.

“In the last two or three years, the number of walks across the country has tapered significantly,” said PETA’s Winders. She said the reduction in the number of elephant walks coincided with growing protests.

Downey resident SanJuana Callahan said of the elephants, “I think it’s something very entertaining ... It doesn’t seem like they’re being harmed in any way. But I guess people feel differently.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.

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