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The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will begin phasing out one of its most enduring acts. By 2018, elephants will no longer perform under its big tents. The announcement today stunned animal welfare groups, which, for years, fought legal battles over the circus's treatment of animals. But as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, Ringling Bros. says it's just responding to what its audience wants.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. The greatest show on earth.
JACKIE NORTHAM: For as long as the greatest show on earth has been around, there have been elephants, whether on circus posters, doing tricks in the center ring or carrying some scantily clad performer on its back. But today, Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, announced those days are almost over. Stephen Payne, a company spokesman, says its 13 animals still performing will slowly be retired.
STEPHEN PAYNE: The Asian elephant has been a symbol for Ringling Bros. for its 145-year history. This was not an easy decision for the Feld family to arrive at. It's been a long, heartfelt thought process.
NORTHAM: And the news has blindsided animal rights groups.
WAYNE PACELLE: Symbolically, it's one of the biggest announcements in the modern era of animal welfare. It's almost like the Berlin Wall within animal welfare.
NORTHAM: Wayne Pacelle is the head of The Humane Society in the U.S. He says the animal protection movement has waged bitter protracted fights with Ringling Bros. in courts and legislatures over its treatment of elephants.
PACELLE: They're intelligent, sociable animals. In the circus they're kept on chains for 22 hours a day. They're hit with bull hooks and they're shuttled around to more than a hundred cities a year, and it's no life for an animal.
NORTHAM: Last year, The Humane Society and other groups lost a 14-year legal battle against Feld Entertainment over unproven allegations that circus trainers mistreated elephants. But spokesman Payne Ringling Bros. faces a patchwork of legislation in cities and counties nationwide that imposes restrictions on the use of elephants. He says rather than fight it, Feld Entertainment is responding to the shift in the public's mood.
PAYNE: Ringling Bros. has survived for 145 years by evolving with changing times. The circus today looks nothing like the circus did 20 years ago or 30 years ago when I went as a kid. So as we listened to our customers and looked at the legislative landscape, we all decided that the best thing to do was to phase the elephants out of the circus.
NORTHAM: Pacelle, with The Humane Society, said today's announcement by Ringling Bros. is a harbinger of things to come.
PACELLE: If that kind of company recognizes that it can no longer succeed economically and that the best course forward is to get rid of these elephants in its circus act, which is central to its brand, I just see so many other companies following suit.
NORTHAM: Ringling Bros. says it will move the last of its traveling elephants to its conservation center in Florida within the next three years. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.