Last Ringling performances set for May 2017
ELLENTON, Florida––The epoch of performing animal extravaganzas drew closer to an end over the weekend of January 14-15, 2017 with the near-simultaneous announcements by Feld Entertainment that the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus will cease performing in May 2017, and by SeaWorld that the Sunday “Shamu” show would be the last orca act featuring stunts at SeaWorld San Diego, where “Shamu” shows began in January 1966.
“You will still see a whale”
The SeaWorld announcement does not mean the end of orca exhibitions at the three SeaWorld facilities, said former orca trainer Al Garver, now vice president of operations at SeaWorld San Diego.
“You will still see a whale leaping out of the water,” Garver promised.
The traditional SeaWorld orca acts are to be replaced by an educational program, Garver told media, to debut in San Diego later in 2017 and be replicated by 2019 at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio.
Ringling show will no longer go on
Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus personnel meanwhile informed nearly 500 employees that the show would no longer go on after Saturday night performances in Orlando and Miami.
The two remaining Ringling touring units, consolidated from three in 2016, are already booked to perform 30 more shows at east coast venues including Atlanta, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and Brooklyn.
The Ringling finales will come on May 7, 2017 in Providence, Rhode Island, and May 21, 2017 at the Nassau County Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.
“Felled by variety of factors”
Reported Associated Press, “The iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of factors, company executives say. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups, all contributed to its demise.
Said Kenneth Feld, chair of Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus since 1967, “There isn’t any one thing. This has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family.”
But elephants were the biggest issue
Daughter and Ringling chief operating officer Juliette Feld acknowledged that circus attendance had been dropping for 10 years, with an especially “dramatic drop” in ticket sales after May 2016, after the circus stopped touring with elephants, featured in Ringling shows since 1882.
“We know now that one of the major reasons people came to Ringling Bros. was getting to see elephants,” Juliette Feld told media.
The Felds pledged that the remaining animals in the Ringling touring menagerie, including lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas, will be sent to “suitable homes.”
The last eleven elephants exhibited by Ringling circus units were “permanently retired” in 2016 to the company’s 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation near Ellenton, Florida, joining 29 other elephants who had already been retired, or were born at the facility and never used in performances.
Elephant acts pack trunks
The first U.S. circus to display elephants, Ringling was also very nearly the last.
Traveling elephant acts persist in a few parts of Europe, Asia, South America, and the Middle East, but Mexico banned circus elephant acts in December 2014, and in December 2016 circus elephant acts were all but banned in India, where traveling elephant shows appear to have originated more than 2,300 years ago.
“In a landmark decision,” reported Bindu Shajan Perappadan for The Hindu, “the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) has passed orders cancelling recognition granted to 21 circuses. With this, no circus in the country (except Ajanta circus, whose animals are under scrutiny) can house wild animals like elephants.”
U.S. elephant exhibitors fined
Also in December 2016 the Royal Hanneford Circus, of Sarasota, Florida, “agreed to pay a $7,000 fine to settle alleged federal Animal Welfare Act violations involving Missouri and Pennsylvania shows [in 2014] where elephants were allowed to get loose or too close to circus-goers,” reported Associated Press writer Jim Suhr.
The Royal Hanneford Circus settlement “came roughly six months after the Carson & Barnes circus agreed to a $16,000 fine for its alleged role,” Suhr recalled.
Carson & Barnes, of Hugo, Oklahoma, leases elephant acts to other circuses, including the Royal Hanneford Circus, and appears to be the last major circus elephant exhibition company in North America. There are, however, numerous individual elephant owner/trainers who hire their animals and acts out to small circuses, fairs, carnivals, political events, and other performance venues.
Ringling elephants “retired” to cancer research use
Meanwhile, how “permanently” the Ringling elephants were “retired” can be debated, since at the Center for Elephant Conservation they are part of an ongoing cancer research project, which may become more profitable for the Feld family than exhibiting elephants ever was. The project appears to be minimally invasive to the elephants, but little has been disclosed about it.
University of Chicago researchers Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel estimated in the May 2006 edition of the Journal of Political Economy that a “1% reduction in mortality from cancer has a value to Americans of nearly $500 billion. A cure for cancer would be worth about $50 trillion.”
By comparison, Forbes magazine in 2016 estimated the net worth of Kenneth Feld and Feld Entertainment at about $1.8 billion, with annual gross revenue of about $1 billion per year.
All in the genes
Reported Michael Pollick of the Sarasota Herald Tribune in November 2015, “A three-year old research project [at the Center for Elephant Conservation, in cooperation with other institutions] has identified a cancer-killing gene called TP-53, which is nearly identical in elephants and humans, and which plays a key role in both creatures in recognizing and attacking out-of-control cellular growth, the essence of cancer.
“But there are two crucial differences,” Pollick explained. “Elephants are born with 20 pairs of the TP-53 gene per chromosome, while humans only have two per DNA strand — one from their mother and one from their father. Roughly one out of 5,000 humans inherit just one TP-53 gene, instead of two, which vastly increases their chances of getting cancer.
“Just as importantly,” Pollick added, “the human version of TP-53 first tries to repair errant cells and then, if unsuccessful, begins destroying them. The elephant version of TP-53 does not bother trying to repair the mutated cells, but simply wipes them out.”
Ringling won in court
While the politics and economic realities of of exhibiting elephants has turned against Ringling, Ringling is retiring as a big winner in multiple lawsuits initiated by animal advocacy organizations to try to force an end to elephant shows.
Settling the biggest, the Humane Society of the U.S. and codefendants in May 2014 paid $15.75 million to Feld Entertainment to settle countersuits resulting from a lawsuit brought against Feld and Ringling in 2000 by plaintiffs including the American SPCA, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Animal Protection Institute, and the Fund for Animals.
HSUS became involved after the Fund for Animals merged into HSUS in 2005. The Born Free Foundation was brought into the case after absorbing the Animal Protection Institute at the end of 2007.
The $15.75 million settlement was in addition to a $9.3 million settlement paid to Ringling by the ASPCA in December 2012.
The animal advocacy organizations’ case, brought under the Endangered Species Act, was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan on the last day of 2009. The Feld Entertainment countersuit, brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, was filed in 2007.
Nearly 220 years of conflict
The Ringling RICO case capped conflicts which erupted almost as soon as sea captain Jacob Crowninshield brought the first elephant seen in the Americas since the ice ages to New York City on April 13, 1796. Customs inspector Nataniel Hathorne, father of author Nathaniel Hawthorne (who spelled his name differently), logged the arrival.
Crowninshield sold the elephant to farmer Hackaliah Bailey, of Somers, New York, who formed the earliest ancestor of the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus and toured the east coast for 20 years. The elephant was shot by a religious fanatic in either Maine or Rhode Island (accounts differ) in 1816. Clergy from New England to the Carolinas had denounced Bailey’s circus, chiefly as a distraction from churchgoing, but sometimes also as cruel exploitation of the animals.
Phineas Taylor Barnum
In 1850, recalled Good Magazine associate features editor Alessandra Rizzotti, “P.T. Barnum founded his Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum, and Menagerie. He hired ‘native assistants’ in Sri Lanka to capture the magnificent wild animals and bring them back to America. Barnum wrote in an autobiography that the expedition ‘killed large numbers of the huge beasts,’ but 11 live elephants endured a 12,000-mile voyage to New York City.”
One elephant died during the voyage. The survivors, including an exceptionally large male named Jumbo, eventually became part of the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus.
American SPCA founder Henry Bergh clashed with Barnum as early as December 1866, initially about Barnum’s practice of feeding live prey to snakes, but soon Bergh was confronting Barnum about elephant use and misuse too. An 1884 confrontation described by The New York Times involved Barnum’s use of a skin-whitening bleach designed for sale to African Americans to change a grey elephant into an alleged sacred white elephant.
PETA vs. Ringling
Ringling in 1968 bought out the Harry Williams circus to acquire trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, a pioneer of positive reinforcement training, who directed the Ringling animal acts until his retirement in 1998. Protest against Ringling during Gebel-Williams’ tenure focused on the general issue of animal exploitation, rather than specific allegations of abuse.
In 1999, however, the Performing Animal Welfare Society brought complaints of abuse by former Ringling workers to the attention of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service. USDA-APHIS veterinarian Ron DeHaven, who later headed the agency, reported that “There is sufficient evidence to confirm the handling of these animals caused unnecessary trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and discomfort.”
Summarized Rizzotti of Good Magazine, “In 2004, the USDA finally suggested an $11,000 penalty against Ringling for excessive chaining and whipping when a video surfaced of an injured Ringling elephant being abused by a handler.”
However, Rizzotti continued, “Even with PETA and then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s support, the case hit a dead end.”
Feld Entertainment meanwhile hired the private security firm Richlin Consultants to infiltrate and disrupt PAWS and PETA. The $8.8 million operation, underway from 1989 until 1992, was directed by Clair E. George, who had been deputy director of operations for the Central Intelligence Agency from July 1984 through December 1987.
The infiltrations came to light when one of as many as 16 spies placed within PAWS, PETA, In Defense of Animals, the Elephant Alliance, and other animal advocacy organizations allegedly tried to sell their secrets to PAWS founder Pat Derby. Derby sued Feld Entertainment in June 2000. Feld reportedly settled the case by agreeing to retire several circus elephants to the PAWS sanctuary and fund their upkeep.
PETA sued Feld Entertainment over the infiltration in 2001, and again in an amended complaint in 2002, but a Fairfax County Circuit Court jury on March 15 found Kenneth Feld and Feld Entertainment not guilty of illegally conspiring to harm PETA.