Alana, Juliette, Kenneth, and Nicole Feld are all smiles with one of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' largest performers.

Feld Entertainment, owner of the 145-year-old Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, announced this morning (March 5) that the circus will be losing one of its biggest (pun intended) draws. The company will phase out its 13 elephant performers across three circus units with the deadline of 2018 to remove all elephants.

Though impending legislation banning bullhooks (more commonly referred to as ‘guides’) in several cities played a part in the decision, Feld Spokesperson Stephen Payne said that it wasn’t the sole reason.

“We were facing a situation with a patchwork quilt of regulations and constantly having to play the legislative business of whack-a-mole — and that’s not our business,” he said. “Our business is in live family entertainment. We’re not in the business of fighting city hall every day.”

“PETA is going to say whatever it’s gong to say, and we’re going to continue doing what we do, which is providing live quality family entertainment and taking care of the animals,” said Payne. “Nothing about this decision had anything to do with PETA’s opinions of Ringling Bros. or anyone that works here. They are a nuisance — and that’s all.”

Kari Johnson of Have Trunk Will Travel, which provides elephant services for live events and filming, said that Feld’s news has been a big topic of discussion this morning.

“The word I keep hearing over and over is ‘sad.’ We’re so sad and, actually, the saddest part to us is that we’ve come to the point where a minority of very vocal, well-funded animal extremist groups can influence a decision that impacts everyone,” said Johnson, who defended the importance of elephants being accessible to the public.

“As it becomes harder and harder to see a live elephant, smell it and touch it, we get further and further away from the reality of what elephants really are. It’s so important to have that human contact so that people can have that experience to draw from — it helps people care more about animals and elephants if they’ve seen one live,” she added, saying that the elephants at Have Trunk Will Travel often get fan mail (or fan email, these days).

Legislation banning guides has not gone into effect yet in cities like Los Angeles and Oakland and won’t until 2018. According to Payne, the company “will vigorously defend the use of the tool because it is the appropriate tool for working with elephants, but after the beginning of 2018 it becomes moot.”

Johnson added that animal rights activists have “villainized” the guide, which is used because it works with elephants. “You can’t put a leash on an elephant. They’re smart, but they need to be guided like anything … dogs, kids, husbands,” she added. 

Feld Entertianment currently houses more than 40 elephants at its Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. (VT Photo)

PETA president Ingrid Newkirk, a vocal opponent of Feld, issued a video statement on the PETA website, stating: “After 35 years of PETA protests, Ringling has announced that in three years it will end the use of elephants in the circus. These elephants are lame, many of them have TB, they’ve suffered so much — the babies being taken away from their mothers — and this is a day of rejoicing. We would rather the day comes today because three years is a long time to feel that whip and that bull hook. The end of the animal circus is a time of great rejoicing for the animal kingdom and for all the animal rights activists here at PETA and elsewhere who have waited for this time.”

Having the 2018 deadline means that the company is now working backward, in a way, preparing its Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, which the company founded in 1995, for 13 new members. Feld may need to build additional barns on-site and look into adding more staff.

Though elephants will no longer be part of the touring show, Payne insisted that the company’s work with Asian elephant conservation will continue and, if anything, increase.

“Right now [Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation] is not open to the public. We’ll still work with researchers, scientists and other individuals, but we don’t ever envision it as a theme park,” he said. “First and foremost it has and always will be about the elephants.” Some of the current employees that work with the elephants on tour will transition to jobs at the center, while others have several other responsibilities in addition to the elephants and will remain on tour.

Johnson, for one, was relieved to hear that the Feld family will continue their conservation efforts.

“Feld has fought and fought and expended amazing amounts of resources on fighting legislation,” she said. “I was heartened to hear they were going to keep the Center for Elephant Conservation, because they do so much good there and people don’t know about it.”

“They help fund workshops that we wouldn’t be able to have. We wouldn’t be able to get together with all other people and researchers and give and get information like we do if somebody didn’t pay for everyone to come together at an elephant husbandry workshop or research workshop,” Johnson added. “They pay for so much of that and they are so willing, because I know the Feld family love their elephants and I’m sure that they’ll have a lot more resources to use for conservation now that they’re not spending it fighting animal rights groups.”

Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation includes elephants of varying ages, to which Feld Entertainment has a lifetime commitment. (VT Photo)

Ringling Bros. Producers and Executive Vice Presidents with Feld Entertainment Nicole and Alana Feld released a statement saying: “Our family has been the proud steward of the American institution that is Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and our elephants, for 45 years. It is a legacy that we hold near and dear to our hearts, and as producers of The Greatest Show On Earth, we feel we have a responsibility to preserve the esteemed traditions that everyone expects from a Ringling Bros. performance while striving to keep the show fresh and contemporary for today’s families. As the circus evolves, we can maintain our focus on elephant conservation while allowing our business to continue to meet shifting consumer preferences.”

Payne said that phasing out the elephant performers won’t have much of an effect on the actual nuts and bolts of what it takes to tour, when it comes to traveling schedule, costs and train cars. Elephants are not the only animals to travel by train, but also horses, camels, and other performers. “I would expect that there will be a slight reduction, but when you’re dealing with a train that’s 61 cars long, a change of one or two cars is not a dramatic impact on something that’s already highly complex and a mile long.”

The elephant performers will continue with the circus through 2017, but some of the show’s artwork will need to be changed.

“The logo is not necessarily elephant-specific, but a lot of the artwork for the shows has elephants.” He continued to advise, “I would say that if you’re coming to the show now, snatch up as many snow cone mugs and elephant products as you can, because those are surely to become collectors' items.”

Instead of elephants, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will focus on its human performers and other animal performers, with Nicole and Alana Feld coming up with new plans and changes for the future.

“Ringling Bros. has been around for 145 years — it’s a year older than baseball — and the only way it’s survived that long is that it’s evolved over time. The people who create it each year listen to what audiences are looking for,” said Payne. “People are still going to have a lot of reasons to come to The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Contact: Stephen Payne, Nicole and Alana Feld, (703) 749-5505; Kari Johnson, (951) 943-9227; Ingrid Newkirk, (202) 483-7382 x2199