Ringling elephants, a famed U.S. circus act, pack up trunks for retirement

Sat Apr 30, 2016 1:12pm EDT
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By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Elephants take a final bow at Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus on Sunday, ending a 145-year spectacle that delighted fans but enraged animal activists, who say the highly publicized retirement is not enough.

The last 11 elephants touring with "The Greatest Show on Earth" will leave behind their enormous studded tiaras and begin traveling on Monday to Ringling's 200-acre (80-hectare) Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, said Stephen Payne, spokesman for the circus' parent company, Feld Entertainment.

Bonnie, Juliette and nine other female Asian elephants are retiring earlier than originally planned, reflecting shifting U.S. attitudes toward animal entertainment. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc (SEAS.N: Quote) is phasing out killer whale shows at its amusement parks, halting the breeding of orcas in captivity as of last month and replacing the extravaganzas with what it terms educational encounters by 2019.

But the United States has a long way to go, say animal activist groups including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and The Elephant Sanctuary.

Even after the Ringling elephants perform their last headstands in Sunday shows in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania and Providence, Rhode Island, a total of 69 elephants will still be in the possession of smaller U.S. circuses and traveling acts, with some too crippled to be exhibited and some kept for breeding, said PETA spokeswoman Katie Arth.

Other wild animals continue as circus headliners, including at Ringling Bros, which tours with 28 tigers, six lions, one leopard, two kangaroos and three pythons, Payne said.

At least 17 countries have outlawed circus acts featuring wild animals, but the practice remains largely legal in the United States. Hawaii is poised to be the first state to ban them and more than a dozen municipalities have enacted their own prohibitions.

While glad that the Ringling elephants are leaving their traveling days behind, animal activists are critical of the company's Polk City, Florida, facility that will serve as their retirement home.   Continued...

A performer waves as she rides an elephant during a performance in Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus' "Circus Extreme" show at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 29, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly