PETA wins: Ringling Brothers circus to close in May

For nearly 150 years, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus has entertained children of all ages. But dwindling ticket sales and high operating costs have finally forced this American icon to go dark.

Feld Entertainment, parent company of the circus, announced that following a performance in Uniondale, NY on May 21, the circus will permanently shut its doors, ending a 146 year run.

The company also cited the forced ending of the popular elephant act, brought about when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued the circus, charging that the elephants and other wild animals were being abused. Fields eventually settled the suit but agreed to end the performance of elephants.

Not suprisingly, PETA gloated about the end of the circus:

"After much evaluation and deliberation, my family and I have made the difficult business decision that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will hold its final performances in May," Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, the Florida-based producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, said on the circus' web site.

In May of last year, the circus retired its elephant act, years after a suit by activists. It admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to a six-figure fine several years before ending the elephant performances.

In his statement on Saturday, Feld noted that declining sales had fallen off even more dramatically following what he called "the transition of the elephants off the road."

Animal rights group PETA said it "heralds the end of what has been the saddest show on earth for wild animals, and asks all other animal circuses to follow suit, as this is a sign of changing times."

PETA President Ingrid Newkirk also said in its statement that 36 years of PETA protests had "awoken the world to the plight of animals in captivity."

Activists often appeared outside venues with fliers, protesting against the use of elephants, and pictures of animals they said were abused.

After Feld Entertainment sued, claiming malicious prosecution, more than a dozen animal welfare groups agreed in 2012 and 2014 to pay settlements totaling about $25 million to end 14 years of litigation.

The circus went by the slogan "The greatest show on earth," a catchphrase that was so ubiquitous it was employed for the title of the 1952 Cecil B. DeMille best picture Oscar-winning film starring Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton.

If you love wild animals, you probably have mixed emotions about the circus closing. There is ample evidence that many of the animals were abused during training for the acts and that other animals were neglected. 

This PETA film may be propaganda, but independent reports corraborate many of the acts of abuse:


By necessity, most of the animals were kept in cages for long stretches and when traveling, were penned up in railroad cars. Anyone who has ever visited an old fashioned zoo where the animals are kept in small enclosures or cages knows that the beasts were extremely unhappy at their plight. The circus treatment of animals left much to be desired.

The history of the circus and it's close identity with Americana will always be part of the tapestry of American history. Until the 1950's, Ringling Brothers used to play most of their dates in small towns where people would travel vast distances to see a show. They'd set up the "Big Top" in a farmer's field or open space and play 3 shows a day, filling the seats.

But by the late 50's, it became clear that making a profit by extending the season to include smaller venues wasn't possible anymore. So, after a reorganization in the 1960's, the circus played a shortened season in big cities only. They added a smaller, one ring circus in the 1980's to play smaller venues.

Ringling Brothers and Barum and Bailey's Circus is a victim of modernity as much as economics. Like Burlesque, minstrel shows, and musical revues, those art forms simply outlived their appeal, but will forever be remembered for their contributions to American culture.