Under the circusÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s big top, acrobats soar through the sky, lion tamers stick their heads into the mouths of big cats and people swallow swords. The danger and daring required for such acts has led to a long tradition of removing, rearranging and introducing new acts into shows.
But this week, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced it was ending an iconic part of the three-ring display. Feld Entertainment, the circusÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s parent company, said that by 2018 its productions will no longer feature elephants, an animal that is practically synonymous with the Ringling and Barnum brands.
The decision signifies the end to a classic, and controversial, element of the American circus as shows around the world do away with the menagerie of animal performers.
Susan Nance, a history professor at the University of Guelph in Toronto and author of Entertaining Elephants, which traces the history of the animals in the circus, was surprised by Ringling BrosÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ decision because of the companyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s long tradition of using the animals. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It took a lot of nerve for them to do this Ã¢â‚¬â€œ it canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have been easy,Ã¢â‚¬Â Nance said.
Though elephants occasionally appeared in ancient circuses, Nance said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“The biggest innovation that American producers made to the history of the circus was to add elephants.Ã¢â‚¬Â
During the golden era of the circus Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the late 19th century into the early 20th century Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Nance said an Ã¢â‚¬Å“elephants arms raceÃ¢â‚¬Â took place among touring companies that touted the size of their elephant herds to attract audiences.
But now interest in circuses has waned with the availability of entertainment such as movies, video games and the internet. And easier access to media, alongside animal welfare group campaigns, has increased awareness about the downside of featuring these animals in shows, which campaigners say involves cruelty to the elephants.
For more than two decades, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, one of the major elephant refuges in the US, has taken in and cared for elephants retired from entertainment. In that time, the group said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“our veterinary and care staff have observed a long list of medical, physiological, and behavioral issues that the SanctuaryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s resident elephants must confront each and every day as a result of their former lives performing and traveling on the road.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Greece, Malta and Bolivia ban all animals from circuses, while other countries have laws to ban the use of wild animals, specific species or bringing animals into the country for performances.
Feld Entertainment cited consumersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Ã¢â‚¬Å“mood shiftÃ¢â‚¬Â in its release about why it was retiring the companyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s entire elephant herd, the largest in North America. Ã¢â‚¬Å“A lot of people arenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t comfortable with us touring with our elephants,Ã¢â‚¬Â Alana Feld, FeldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s executive vice-president, told the AP.
PetaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s deputy director of captive animal law enforcement, Brittany Peet, said that she has seen this mood shift while participating in protests outside circuses. Part of the animal welfare groupÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s extensive activism against the practice includes screening footage of captive elephants outside circus venues.