For all the times I’ve watched the circus, I’ve enjoyed a feeling of epic wonder throughout all the performances. For one great price, I saw trapeze artists, tightrope walkers, lion tamers, clowns, and – if you’ve been to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus – the parade of elephants. Elephants that could stand on tables and bend their heads and use their trunks to grasp the tails of the elephant ahead of them in a pachyderm parade.
Asian elephants have been part of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus shows for ages. The elephant has been part of their logotype and legacy. When the Ringling Brothers circus comes to Albany, there’s always a free “lunch with the elephants” show, where several of the majestic beasts parade down South Pearl Street and dine, in front of a cell-phone-photo-capturing public, on a massive table spread of vegetables and greens.
But with the elephant shows came the controversies. The news reports that some circuses used painful bullhooks to train the elephants to do all the tricks in the shows. News reports about how the pachyderms traveled from city to city in sweltering boxcars, riding inside with heavy metal chains fastened to their enormous legs. News reports about how many circus elephants developed sores and diseases from the years of travel and performance. These are things we don’t know. In some cases, it’s things we’re never meant to know.
That’s why yesterday’s news – that Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus would phase out their performing elephant herd, eventually retiring elephants from their shows in 2018 – is truly a major change for the company.
In addition to retiring the elephant performers, Ringling Brothers will build a sanctuary for their elephant stock to live out the remainder of their lives in peace. Ringling Brothers owns 43 Asian elephants, the largest ownership of any Asian elephant herd in the United States. These animals will eventually spend their retirement at an expanded preserve in Florida.
So what spurred the decision to retire performing elephants from the Ringling Brothers circus?
Obviously, it’s hard to prepare a nationwide circus tour when many of the cities you perform in start passing “anti-elephant performance” statutes.
And Ringling Brothers has altered their shows over the years – there’s no canvas “big top” set up at the outskirts of town; there’s no “freak shows” with bearded ladies and 400-pound midgets. And the show’s performances now include high-wire motorcycle acts and other extreme stunts that show the height and breadth and depth of stage performance.
I know that some people are reading this news and saying, “Why wait until 2018? Why not stop the elephants from performing tomorrow?”
I wish I had the answer to that question. All I can surmise, in my opinion, is that Ringling Brothers will need to expand their current elephant preservation grounds to handle the retired elephant herd, and that will take some time. That, and I’m sure that Ringling Brothers will want to give circus fans one last chance to see the elephants perform, with a “farewell tour” similar to the one that Gunther Gebel-Williams received back in the day.
Plus, if the Asian elephants are on a private reservation, this could be Ringling Brothers’ next great mission – to restore and regrow the Asian elephant population, which has been devastated by poachers and hunters.
In the end, it’s part of the evolution of the circus. Let us now see what the circus can offer us the next time it comes to Albany. Let us see how it can entertain us with new wonders and new excitement and new death-defying thrills.
Generations of elephants have performed for the Ringling Brothers circus.
It’s now time for Ringling Brothers to give back to the elephants.
This is the first step.
Let’s hope it’s not the last step.