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Why All of America's Circus Animals Could Soon be Free

After 146 years Ringling circus is putting on its final show. Lawmakers may unite to take all traveling exotic animals off the road.

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An elephant disembarks a Ringling Bros. train in Washington, D.C., in 2015. Elephants have since been retired from the circus. Today marks the "Greatest Show on Earth's” final bow.


The curtain is about to fall for the last time on the self-dubbed “Greatest Show on Earth,” America’s biggest and longest-running traveling circus. On Sunday, after 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will pump its caravan brakes permanently. Other traveling circuses may not be far behind.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have joined forces on a bill that would ban the use of exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses and any other entertainment act on wheels. In late March, Representatives Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, Ryan Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican, and 22 other lawmakers introduced the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act (TEAPSPA) in the House. It would require the 19 traveling circuses in the U.S. with performing animals to to use only human entertainers—or shut down.

If the bill passes, it will end life on the road for more than 200 big cats, bears, camels, and elephants still working as circus performers. Thirty-four other countries have instituted similar bans, as have dozens of cities and counties in the U.S., including Los Angeles and San Francisco.

DO ANIMALS NEED TO BE SAVED FROM THE CIRCUS?

The welfare issues affecting wild circus animals are long documented and numerous. Animal welfare experts have found that it's grueling and stressful for animals to always be on the road, confined to tight spaces, and made to perform before screaming audiences.

“Wild animals, even if they're born in captivity, retain all their natural instincts, which are completely thwarted when they are trapped in small cages and shuttled from city to city in trucks and trailers,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.

These stresses are exacerbated by the fact that the animals must perform unnatural physical acts: bears trained to prance on tightropes; elephants made to balance on chairs; tigers forced to jump through flaming hoops. The training, lifelong and relentless, is especially hard on performing animals.

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Ringling elephants get a bath during a break from performing in 2015. Although these elephants are now off the road, around 50 others still perform in circuses across the U.S.


It’s the same with any wild animal forced to interact regularly with humans. For an animal to be tamed, it must be “broken” early. For elephants that means being struck with bullhooks—sharp metal poles—from a very early age, until they’re docile enough to follow commands. For elephants in circuses, the training extends further. They don’t just have to be tame enough to give tourists rides—they need to twirl and balance on their hind legs. Every time an elephant doesn’t complete a perfect turn, it may be hit or otherwise disciplined. If a big cat doesn’t behave, it may be whipped and deprived of food.

“A hundred years or so ago, when we were ignorant about the intelligence and emotions and ability of a species to communicate, we might have had the excuse of our own ignorance that we treated these animals so badly,” says Jan Creamer, founder of Animal Defenders International and an advocate for TEAPSPA. “But we simply don’t have that excuse any longer. Wild animals in circuses don’t belong in an advanced, civilized society.”

After a 2011 Mother Jones investigation exposed pervasive cruelty toward elephants at Ringling Bros, a number of petitions and public interest campaigns demanded change. Ringling took notice and in March 2015 announced that it would no longer feature elephant acts. The circus since retired its 13 elephants to Ringling’s Florida-based Center for Elephant Conservation. The circus continued to feature big cats and other animals.

RINGLING’S FINAL BOW

In the end, removing elephants wasn’t enough to save Ringling. In January, citing declining ticket sales and high operating costs, Kenneth Feld, CEO of Ringling parent company Feld Entertainment, announced the circus would close this year. It “had become an unsustainable business for the company,” he said in a statement.

Ultimately, Creamer says, Ringling may have endured if it had switched to human-only performances years ago. Cirque de Soleil is an example of a hugely successful circus that has never featured animals, she notes.

Creamer says that while Ringling’s shutdown is a win for wild animal welfare, the fight continues. It’s why TEAPSPA is necessary, she argues, even after the country’s largest circus closes its doors. According to Creamer, criminalizing the use of wild animals in circuses sends the message that the practice is wrong, and it will create a permanent solution.

“It’s unfortunate such legislation is necessary, but there are findings of systemic inhumane treatment that show a solution is needed,” Representative Costello says.

Abuse allegations continue to surface. A recent Humane Society investigation found that a tiger trainer who works with traveling shows, including the Carden Circus and Shrine Circuses, appears to have mistreated his tigers, potentially in violation of the Animal Welfare Act. The investigation, the results of which were released May 18, reveals ShowMe Tigers owner Ryan Easley on video beating his tigers with whips and sticks. One tiger was hit 31 times in two minutes.

CONGRESS LOOKS TO ACT

TEAPSPA, if signed into law, would be a blow to the businesses of Easley and others who supply exotic animals to circuses. Repeatedly introduced in Congress in recent years, the bill has failed to gain broad support. Until now Ringling was the biggest organization lobbying against TEAPSPA, the “political protector of the circus industry,” according to Pacelle. Now that Ringling is out of the mix, the bill could gain momentum.

It has another thing going for it: Animal welfare has emerged as a unifying bipartisan issue in a contentious political landscape. Representative Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon and a co-sponsor of the bill, says working for animal protections is “a little island of tranquility and civility.”

“Animal welfare is bridge-building,” he says. “It’s where our constituents are. It’s where more and more of our colleagues are. It’s hard to describe the satisfaction when you score a victory in this area.”

Opponents of TEAPSPA include The Cavalry Group, an organization that opposes “radical animal rights groups,” according to its website. The organization says the bill “would deprive countless Americans of the ability to experience endangered animals up close such as elephants and tigers.” They argue that doing so “fosters a love of wildlife in children that lasts a lifetime.”

Creamer encourages parents instead to take their children to view wild animals in places like sanctuaries that keep animals in natural surroundings.

WATCH: This is Where Ringling's Retired Elephants Live Now

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE RINGLING ANIMALS?

Feld Entertainment has applied for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit to export 15 big cats—eight tigers, six lions and one leopard—to Zircus Krone, a circus in Germany. The cats were previously imported from Germany to perform with Ringling. The Animal Legal Defense Fund objects to the export, calling instead for the big cats to be sent to a sanctuary in the U.S. USFWS invites public comment on this petition until June 26.

The company's 13 elephants have already been retired to Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation, not without controversy of its own. Feld Entertainment isn't otherwise publicly disclosing where the Ringling animals are going.

Creamer says that although TEAPSPA has many things working in its favor this time around, people may need to encourage their own lawmakers to sponsor the bill to improve its chances of advancing. Many lawmakers simply don’t know how important animal welfare issues are to their constituents, she says.

The bill’s backers are hopeful. “Animal welfare isn’t a partisan issue, and I am proud to work across the aisle in order to prevent these abusive practices,” Representative Costello says. “Together, we can all take part in ending animal cruelty.”

Editor's Note: This story was updated on May 26 to include information on a Ringling petition to export its big cats to Germany.
Read more stories about wildlife crime and exploitation on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.