Ringling Bros. retiring performing elephants long overdue

Earlier this month The Ringling Brothers Circus announced its plans to retire all of its performing  elephants by May of 2016 — more than a year ahead of schedule. While the announcement brings both relief and concern — mainly on account of the retirement facility in Florida the elephants will be moved  to — the question remains: why are we still participating in these kinds of archaic practices?

Just Google “Ringling Brothers animal acts” and your search page will fill up with headlines like “12 Things Ringling doesn’t want you to know,” “Urge Ringling Bros to Stop Cruel Elephant acts NOW,” and a link to a website entirely devoted to the circus’ cruelty ( PETA has live tweeted Ringling shows, snapping photos of lions sitting on chairs, elephants posing on top of each  other, and tigers in tiny cages with the hashtag #LiveAtRingling and #BoycottTheCircus, and enough people have supported these kinds of causes to make some changes in the industry. Documentaries like Blackfish, The Cove, and — for the really brave — Earthlings, have pushed the save-the-whales-type  movements into the mainstream, pressuring the animal entertainment industry and  highlighting our own involvement in animal cruelty.

But the problem with animal entertainment doesn’t end with the Ringling Bros long overdue decision. Every weekend people herd themselves into Sea Lion’s Rock at West Ed for one of the three afternoon  shows, making me wonder how far we’ve come from bear-baiting after all. Although many circuses,  zoos, and the like claim they treat their animals well — The Ringling Bros has a separate website devoted  to their elephant conservation centre — the problem is not the “treatment,” it’s the idea behind the  whole industry. Watch Blackfish and you’ll hear from half a dozen ex-Sea World employees who  genuinely loved and cared for the animals they trained, proving that animal cruelty isn’t just about bull  hooks and cosmetic testing, it’s about removing living creatures from their natural habitat simply  because we want to be entertained by them.

Animal acts reinforce Tolstoy’s claim that “as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be  battlefields” — not because killing animals and people are synonymous, but because the idea that humans can exert their authority over “lesser species’” leads to all kinds of brutality.

While I recognize animals that have grown up in captivity cannot simply be released back into the wild,  we should contemplate the reason we have so many animals in captivity in the first place. Whether or  not we try to justify the animal entertainment industry with claims like, “Well, we can’t just throw them  back into the wild,” the problem remains that we continue to create a demand for animal entertainment  that won’t go away until we choose to relinquish our claim to dominion over anything and everything on  earth. But the desire for the exotic, for knowledge, and most of all power, fuels an industry that should  have been eradicated decades ago.


  1. Great article! I agree. Ringling needs to admit that animals don’t belong in the circus and immediately retire them to a real sanctuary.

  2. Bravo! It’s 2016 for crying out loud. We know that animals suffer when forced to live in cages and chains. People who care about animals will never buy a ticket to an animal circus or the zoo.

  3. The tide of public opinion has forever turned. People no longer find it “amusing” to see elephants, orcas, and other animals kept in captivity and forced to perform demeaning tricks. I hope these long suffering elephants will get a real retirement at a reputable sanctuary, instead of being kept in chains and used as breeding machines to produce more elephants doomed to lives of captivity.

  4. Thank you, Lisa, for an excellent, insightful piece. Using animals for entertainment is exploitation. Period. Ringling is particularly cruel and its elephants will fare no better once they’re moved to the circus’ Florida compound. They’ll still spend most of the day in chains, have their babies taken away to be sold to zoos and other circuses, be used for medical experiments, and be beaten with bullhooks–batons with a sharpened hook at the end that the circus passes off as “tools” and “guides.” If Ringling cared about the welfare of its elephants–and its multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act is proof that it doesn’t—it would move them to reputable sanctuaries where they would have room to roam and the opportunity to socialize.

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