In a second wave of good news from Ringling Bros., the circus company announced today that it would retire its elephants by May, truncating its time frame for ending its traveling acts involving the animals by almost two years. Last March, in a thunderbolt of an announcement, Ringling’s leaders abruptly announced they’d phase out their elephant acts over three years.
The news last year about the retirement of the elephants had direct consequences for a small number of animals, but like the elephants themselves, it had outsized importance because of the symbolic value of the enterprise. Ringling had been one of the biggest defenders of this kind of archaic animal exploitation, and the imminent end of its traveling elephant acts signaled that even one of the most tough-minded and hardened animal-use companies now recognized that the world is changing and it had to adapt.
For wild animals, life in a traveling show amounts to an existence filled with deprivation, long-term confinement, and unending misery. Their training involves heavy doses of punishment, they are kept in cages or chained in trailers and boxcars, and forced to endure months of grueling travel, all so they can perform silly tricks.
Performing elephants are typically struck with an implement called a bullhook – a hybrid between a baseball bat and a fire poker that handlers use to hurt elephants and instill fear in them, in order to control them. Last year, California lawmakers passed legislation to ban bullhooks, but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, though not because of any sympathy for people using the implements to strike elephants.
Even SeaWorld is now making rumblings of reform, having said it would end its theatrical performances for its orcas at its San Diego facility. The company still has a long way to go, though, and we’re anxiously awaiting more news from this other big-name brand in the business of live-animal entertainment.
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.