INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — After more than a century as part of the act, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey said it would eliminate the use of elephants from the circus by 2018, according to an interview circus executives gave to the Associated Press.
Elephants, which for decades have been a showcase of the circus, have become more of a beacon for criticism in recent years.
Online videos posted to YouTube – appearing to show elephants being poked, prodded and struck – have helped fuel lawsuits and protests alleging the animals are being mistreated and abused.
Three months ago in Indianapolis, an estimated 200 protesters gathered outside Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in downtown to protest the circus’ Indianapolis stop.
Diane Schabath was there, along with dozens of others from the Indiana Animal Rights Alliance.
“It’s the bull hooks, it’s the electric shocks, it’s the beatings, it’s traveling in confined trailers, not enough food and water. It’s not a good life, animals deserve to live free,” said Schabath during an interview Thursday.
The announcement Thursday that the circus would remove elephants from its national circus act by 2018 was seen as a small victory for animal rights activists like Schabath.
“It’s wonderful news for the animals that have endured so much cruelty for so many years,” she said.
Feld Entertainment, during an interview with the Associated Press, did not mention protests directly, citing an increase in restrictive local laws in some states and a “mood shift” among consumers as reasons for the change.
“It is bittersweet because the elephants have been at the circus for 145 years so this is a real shift in what will be but its the best thing for our company, for our associates and for our consumers and most of all for the elephants,” Kenneth Feld, President of Feld Entertainment, told the AP.
Alana Feld, the company’s vice president, said cities and counties that have passed anti-circus laws have made touring more difficult.
“We really feel like as a live entertainment company, live entertainment is what we do best and in order for us to focus on doing that we don’t want to be fighting off legislation week in and week out, city to city,” she told the AP. “There’s also been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers and we really want to just get back to what we do best which is creating live entertainment and creating incredible experiences that families can enjoy together.”
During the circus’ stop in Indianapolis last December, employees invited our cameras backstage, where trainer Joey Frisco took on the allegations raised by protesters.
“They are blowing it out of proportion. They are going so extreme. They don’t want to learn about it. They don’t want to learn about what we do,” Frisco said.
In additional videos published online and circulated by animal rights groups, circus employees can be seen striking elephants with bull hooks, an instrument Frisco said in December were no longer in use but were simply a guide for the animals.
Frisco then placed a small hooked instrument on the ground and allowed the elephant to pick it up and hand it to him, saying “See, if they were afraid of it, they wouldn’t have handed it to me.”
Schabath played that demonstration off as a staged public relations stunt.
“He can train them to pick up a bull hook, but they still train with fear and intimidation and pain,” she said.
While pleased by Thursday’s announcement, Schabath says she’d like to see all animals removed from the circus.
We’d like to see it happen sooner. I think phasing out by 2018 is way too long when these animals have endured such cruelty for so many years,” she said.
Stephen Payne, the vice president of corporate communication for Feld Entertainment, told us Thursday afternoon that the protesters were “the furthest thing” from company’s mind in reaching the decision to remove the elephants.
“It wasn’t even a factor,” he said.
When asked directly if the protesters had any influence, he said: “Not really. Our attendance has remained strong among a large cadre of circus fans. The animal rights activists are going to say whatever the animal rights activists are going to say.”
Payne said of the more than 40 Asian elephants in the company’s herd, 13 are touring the U.S. All will be retired to the company’s elephant sanctuary in Florida, he said.
“We continue to feel that all of these laws that have passed are unnecessary. We are very proud of our animal care. But when you put all these factors together, the family decided that this decision was in the best interest of the elephants , the company – not inviting legislation,” Payne said.
He characterized it as a business decision, adding that
Schabath says she believes the protests did influence the company’s decision, even if it was not mentioned.
“Feld and Ringling can say that it’s not because of protests, but as they see that their audience is diminishing – they are willing to make changes,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.