It was the second thunderbolt from Ringling Bros. in the span of two years – a little more than a flash of time in the company’s 146-year history, but as dramatic and sensational as one could imagine. On Saturday night, during a long holiday weekend when people aren’t paying as much attention to the news and when most reporters are off duty, Ringling announced to the Associated Press that it was shuttering its entire business and brand come May. The company’s prior announcement, in March 2015, that it was ending its use of elephants and traveling acts had been remarkable enough. This was extraordinary, head-spinning news.
The biggest brand in exotic animal acts announced that there’s no viable future in that line of work. The parent company has monster trucks, ice skating, and other forms of spectator entertainment that are generating profits and drawing crowds. Those forms remain viable. But not elephants doing head stands and tigers and lions jumping through hoops.
So much of the public just doesn’t go for it any longer. The animal-based circus looks and feels archaic. What’s more, we now know about the social and emotional lives of these animals, and the endless privation for these creatures living in near constant confinement or tethered to chains. With other forms of entertainment available to the American public – typified by the circuses without animals, represented most vividly and compellingly by an elegant suite of Cirque du Soleil shows— why put the animals through the grinding travel, the long-term confinement, and the coercive training techniques?
As I say in The Humane Economy, if you are part of the old, inhumane economy – grounded on exploiting animals — get a new business plan or get out of the way. Ringling decided to get out of the way.
This is a win for our entire movement – not just one organization. Opposing the use of wild animals in traveling acts united so many animal organizations, even though it was the top concern for but a few. Animal advocates have been banging away at the cruelty and the wrongfulness of animal performances for decades. But in the last few years, the steady drumbeat of argument that there is something wrong with the mistreatment and display of wild animals penetrated the consciousness of the country and ultimately exerted its effect as consumers simply went elsewhere. Ken Feld, the CEO of the company, said that attendance was dropping and that he simply didn’t see a profitable future for the company.
In the wake of Ringling’s first announcement, ending the use of elephants in traveling acts, California and Rhode Island adopted policies forbidding the use of bullhooks in handling elephants, and there was more in the works as a way of eliminating the remaining circuses exploiting elephants. This second major announcement from Ringling is likely to expand the hopes of animal advocates to do away with traveling exotic animal acts everywhere. Ringling had long been the most adamant defender of wild-animal acts, but with the company out of that business, it’s very unlikely it will continue to play that role.
The marketplace is leading the way here. But as California, Rhode Island, and a number of local communities have demonstrated, government has a complementary role to play. Generally speaking, government-based rules forbidding animal cruelty sweep up the outliers, and that’s as it should be.
A tip of the hat to the leadership of Ringling. They’ve been bitter adversaries of The HSUS for decades, but they’ve done the right thing here. It had to be a very difficult decision, given the immense financial and emotional investments they had in this business, but closing the curtain is the right thing to do — in terms of moral and economic thinking.