POLK CITY, Fla. (AP) — Animal rights activists were stunned when the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced it would eliminate elephants from its circus performances by 2018.
"Monumental and long overdue," was how the Animal Welfare Institute put it.
"Startling and tremendously exciting," The Humane Society of the United States said in a statement.
And the International Fund for Animal Welfare called it "a giant step in the right direction."
But activists soon focused on the timing, questioning why it will take three years to phase out the elephants from the traveling circus shows.
"Many of the elephants are painfully arthritic, and many have tuberculosis, so their retirement day needs to come now," wrote Ingrid E. Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in a statement. "If the decision is serious, then the circus needs to do it NOW."
Executives at Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company, say it will take three years to build proper facilities for them on the 200-acre plot of land in central Florida that's already being used as an elephant conservation center. They have repeatedly denied that the elephants are mistreated in any way in the circuses.
"Each elephant requires a certain amount of space and a certain amount of barn area," said Stephen Payne, Feld's spokesman, adding that permits, drainage issues and other logistics must be worked out. The company intends for the elephants to live out their years on the property, and since one elephant is 69, they must plan for the long haul to care for the crop of gentle giants.
The decision to phase out elephants from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes at a time when cities across the United States are cracking down on exotic animal displays.
Even before Thursday's announcement that the elephants will be phased out of Ringling's performances by 2018, company officials already said they were pulling out of certain cities because of newly enacted restrictions.
Feld executives said the decision to end the circus's century-old tradition of showcasing elephants was difficult and debated at length. Elephants have often been featured on Ringling's posters over the decades.
"There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," said Alana Feld, the company's executive vice president. "A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."
Feld owns 43 elephants, 29 of which live at the company's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. Thirteen animals will continue to tour with the circus before retiring to the center by 2018. One elephant is on a breeding loan to the Fort Worth Zoo.
Another reason for the decision, company President Kenneth Feld said, was that certain cities and counties have passed "anti-circus" and "anti-elephant" ordinances. The company's three shows visit 115 cities throughout the year, and Feld said it's expensive to fight legislation in each jurisdiction. It's also difficult to plan tours amid constantly changing regulations, he said.
"All of the resources used to fight these things can be put toward the elephants," Feld said during an interview at the conservation center. "We're not reacting to our critics; we're creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant."
Carol Bradley, the author of the book "Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top," which is about a non-Ringling circus elephant, said she believes the Feld family "realized it was a losing PR battle."
"This is an enormous, earth-moving decision," she said. "When I heard the news, my jaw hit the floor. I never thought they'd change their minds about this."
In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from a number of animal-rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle over allegations that Ringling circus employees mistreated elephants.
The initial lawsuit was filed in 2000 by a former Ringling barn helper who was later found to have been paid at least $190,000 by the animal-rights groups that helped bring the lawsuit. The judge called him "essentially a paid plaintiff" who lacked credibility and standing to sue. The judge rejected the abuse claims following a 2009 trial.
Kenneth Feld testified during that trial about elephants' importance to the show.
"The symbol of the 'Greatest Show on Earth' is the elephant, and that's what we've been known for throughout the world for more than a hundred years."
When asked by a lawyer whether the show would be the same without the elephants, Feld replied, "No, it wouldn't."
The circus will continue to use tigers, dogs and goats, and a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders joined its Circus Xtreme show this year. More motorsports, daredevils and feats of human physical capabilities will likely be showcased as well. In 2008, Feld acquired a variety of motor sports properties, including monster truck shows, motocross and the International Hot Rod Association, which promotes drag races and other events. In 2010, it created a theatrical motorcycle stunt show called Nuclear Cowboyz. Roughly 30 million people attend one of Feld's 5,000 live entertainment shows every year.
Ringling's popular Canada-based competitor, Cirque du Soleil, features human acts and doesn't use wild animals.
And while Ringling is phasing out the elephants, other, smaller circuses in the U.S. — and in countries such as Russia, France and Thailand — still use elephants.
Feld owns the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America. It costs about $65,000 yearly to care for each elephant.
Kenneth Feld said initially the conservation center will be open only to researchers, scientists and others studying the Asian elephant.
He said he hopes it eventually expands "to something the public will be able to see."
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush.