By Gina Cherelus
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The clowns, animal acts and acrobats of the storied Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus are taking their final bow at an arena outside New York City on Sunday in the final performance of the "Greatest Show on Earth" after nearly 150 years.
Capping a legacy that stretches back to the legendary 19th century showman P.T. Barnum, the circus bids farewell at a series of shows this weekend at newly refurbished Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale on New York's Long Island. A worldwide audience will watch the last show on Sunday evening via a live stream on the Ringling website.
The finale, announced by parent Feld Entertainment Inc in January, comes a year after the company bowed to pressure from animal rights activists and agreed to stop using elephants in its performances. A featured attraction for more than a century, the elephants had come to symbolize the Ringling Bros brand.
Feld decided to fold up the tent as a result of high operating costs combined with lower ticket sales, it said in a statement at the time. After phasing out the elephants, the owner said, the decline in attendance was "greater than could have been anticipated."
Although it retired its elephants, Ringling Bros continued to showcase tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels until the end, despite fierce criticism from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
The animal rights group tied Ringling's demise to its long-standing resistance to demands that it stop using animals.
"Circuses around the world that beat Ringling to the punch in making the decision to stop using animals are thriving. But Ringling stonewalled for decades," PETA said in a statement posted on its website on Saturday.
A representative of Ringling Bros could not be reached on Sunday for comment, but in the past it defended its treatment of animals as humane.
In December, Ringling Bros named Kristen Michelle Wilson as the first female ringmaster in its 146-year history. In making her the 39th person to play the role of circus host, Feld said it was taking a step toward modernizing the circus.
The 13 Asian elephants used in Ringling's two touring companies were phased out and retired to the company's 200-acre (81 hectare) Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Florida.
Fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. About 250 are in captivity in the United States, 26 of which were born in the past 20 years at Ringling facilities.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)