Obituary: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus

No surprise, the ‘Greatest Show on Earth!’ isn’t so great

by Anna Passero-Koennecke
Copy Chief

After 146 years of operation, the iconic and infamous Ringling Circus will be closing this May after preforming a final thirty shows. While known by some as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” the Ringling Bros. have often been the center of controversy with various animal rights activist groups that object to the cruel training methods and poor containment conditions for the animal acts. These clashes with animal rights groups have included large amounts of negative press, declining tickets sales, and multiple long and costly legal battles.
One of these lawsuits was even successful in making the Ringling Bros. retire their elephant acts, after they paid $16 million dollars in settlements. The circus’ act, which used the endangered Asian elephant, was considered to be extremely cruel due to the intelligent and emotional nature of the animals. In order to control the large animals, handlers would separate the highly social elephants from their mothers at a young age, confining them to too small of spaces and beating them with bull hooks in order to condition the animals into submission.

With the loss of the elephant acts, as well as the negative press when the torturous conditions the animals were kept in came to light, the Ringling Circus suffered a loss of revenue greater than anticipated. This, and the costs of their legal battles due to their continued ill treatment of other animals, led in part to the decision to close down the circus. The circus was experiencing an additional natural decline as more and more audiences chose to spend their money at alternative forms of entertainment. Circus acts, which were once an uncommon and unique offer of entertainment, do not have the same draw in the age of technology as they did during the 20th century. High court costs and high maintenance fees combined with ever lowering attendances meant that the Ringling’s Bros. was no longer the profitable business it once was. Although acts like the Cirque Du Soleil have managed to thrive, other circus acts have not been so lucky.

In an official statement, the company has announced that it will be taking care of all its performers, both humans and animals. With the closing of the Ringling Bros., around 500 people will be out of work, though the company has promised to aid in making sure they are able to find new work. For the animals involved, the circus has promised to find them all suitable homes. No word was offered as to the exact nature of how these promises will be upheld.

Many will mourn the loss of the iconic show, which has long been a staple of American culture. However others will rejoice as the discontinuing of the Ringling Bro’s circus elephants was far from the end of the circus’ animal rights violations. Many animal rights activists hope such a large, renowned circus closing in large part due to backlash over the mistreatment of animals, occurring at the same time as pressure being put on SeaWorld over the cruelty of their orca shows, will set an example for other entertainment industries to either train and keep their animals humanly or to discontinue the practice entirely.

There is no doubt that the closing of the Ringling Brothers is the end of an era. As technology and forms of entertainment move forward, the age of the circus has moved further into the realm of the outdated, soon to be primarily remember in horror movies and films on the past.

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