Last week, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey elephants received word that they would all be officially “retired” from performing in shows by May 2016. ©Mike Liu, flickr

Circus elephants in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey shows got good news last week when it was announced on January 11, 2016, that they would be retired in May. That statement follows a similar proclamation in March 2015 that after 145 years of featuring elephants in its acts, the circus would phase out all of its performing pachyderms by 2018.

Why Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s parent company, decided to quit touring with elephants a year and a half early is not quite clear, although there are some theories. CEO Kenneth Feld has given the reason that “the mind of America has changed.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the circus’s Asian elephants will not be released to independent wildlife sanctuaries but to Feld Entertainment’s own Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, where they will continue to be bred.

Only about only 40,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants remain, such as this one photographed in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India. ©Toby Sinclair

And that’s causing some to question whether this is truly good news for the elephants­­—or not.

Uncomfortable consumers

The “changed mind of America” that Kenneth Feld referenced relates to the general public’s current discomfort at seeing elephants perform. In fact, many cities and counties have passed anti-circus ordinances. For example, a year ago, Asheville, North Carolina, banned wild or exotic animal shows in its municipally owned, 7,600-seat U.S. Cellular Center. California banned the use of bullhooks on elephants last April. It was becoming increasingly difficult and far too expensive for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus to organize tours to 115 cities each year, while fighting legislation in each jurisdiction.

Once the remaining touring elephants are moved to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation, the site will hold the largest concentration of Asian elephants—numbering 42—in the Western Hemisphere. World Wildlife Fund estimates that about only 40,000 to 50,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. No more Asian elephants can be imported into this country due to a July 1, 1975, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) treaty prohibiting commercial trade in Asian elephants and their parts. Feld, however, intends to keep breeding elephants.

Ringling’s elephants will be moved to the company’s elephant conservation center in central Florida, where they will continue to be bred. ©Mike Liu, flickr

Why would he do so, if elephants will no longer be part of the Ringling Bros. shows? For cancer research, he states.

Confining quarters for cancer fighters

Although a body as big as an elephant’s has more cells than a human body, cancer is much less common in elephants than in it is in us. Researchers think they may have an explanation for that: in the November 3, 2015, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, a team of scientists reported that compared with human cells that contain just two copies of a major cancer-suppressing gene, elephant cells contain 38.

While the finding isn’t proof that those extra genes make elephants cancer-resistant, if future research confirms that they do, scientists could try to develop drugs for humans that would mimic the effect.

The decision from the circuses may have been prompted by the public’s growing awareness of elephant intelligence. ©Toby Sinclair

Some wildlife advocates say that while the circus’s early retirement of its performing elephants is a positive move, the animals’ treatment at Ringling’s conservation center remains a cause for concern. For example, the Animal Welfare Institute states that at the Florida facility, elephants are confined in chains on concrete floors and subjected to the use of bullhooks and electric prods. In response, Feld Entertainment claims that the elephants are shackled at night to keep them from stealing each other’s food.

Power of the people

In the March 2015 press release, Ringling Brothers stated that although it made the “unprecedented” change in order to focus its elephant work on conservation programs, “the circus will continue to feature other extraordinary animal performers, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels.”

I wonder, however, if the public’s increasing knowledge of the intelligence of elephants wasn’t the real motivation for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s decision regarding the animals. After all, it was the movie Blackfish that alerted us to the plight of performing orcas at SeaWorld and our response to that film—reflected in the park’s declining sales—that caused the enterprise to stop its whale shows. It seems we do have the power to effect change when we all come together for the protection of wildlife.


When we all come together with a “change of mind,” it’s amazing what we can accomplish to protect wildlife.

Perhaps now we should see what we could do to improve the lives of performing lions and tigers.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,