The days of lumbering performances by elephants under big-top tents are coming to an end sooner than planned.
Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, said Monday that it was phasing out its Asian elephants and moving the creatures from their traveling circuses to a conservation center in Florida in May, a year and a half sooner than anticipated.
The move would bring to 40 the number of elephants at the center, the company said. The cost of caring for the 11 touring elephants is about $65,000 a year, and Feld Entertainment said it wants to use that money to focus on conservation and pediatric cancer research instead.
This is a switch from last March, when the company had said it would phase out its touring elephant units, which perform 1,000 shows a year, by 2018. The announcement Monday came after decades of claims by animal rights activists that the circus treated the giant creatures cruelly, including complaints about its use of long, hooked poles called bullhooks, and other methods of control.
Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, said the decision was driven by economics, not complaints, as more cities placed restrictions on housing, restraining and transporting the animals.
The animals have riveted audiences for years, especially in cities where their arrival became a ritual, parading to the Staples Center in Los Angeles or through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel in New York. The remaining two elephant units still on tour – one with five of the animals and the other with six – are scheduled to appear in another 27 shows, including in Brooklyn from February 25 through March 6. Payne said the last two shows to feature elephants would likely be “Circus Xtreme” in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and “Legends” in Providence, Rhode Island, both May 1.
When the 11 elephants take up residence with the 29 others in Florida, they will become part of the company’s pediatric cancer research partnership, Payne said. That research involves testing blood samples from the elephants, whose distinctive p53 gene makes them exceptional cancer fighters, for use in studies at the Primary Children’s Hospital and The Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah.