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Ringling Bros. to Lose Elephants, Gain My Kids

Photograph by Getty Images

If there’s a party happening somewhere, my kids seem to know about it and want to attend. Whether it's a realtor’s open house, stranger’s birthday or holiday observed by a religious sect of which we are not members matters not at all to them. Where there’s cake—or the suspicion of a lit candle, some frosting and a lone balloon—they want in on it.

We live 200 miles away from the closest major city, so Disney on Ice events and their ilk aren’t things we regularly encounter. When we do make it to a metropolitan area, we try to get in our fill of museums, aquariums and zoos.

The one thing that’s never even been up for discussion though is the circus. My kids would undoubtedly chomp at the bit to witness tightrope walkers and fire-eaters (do they actually have those at circuses?) in action. But there’s also not a question that I can’t bear to see those poor elephants chained around the feet and prodded with sharp sticks to perform feats that would be a cruel abomination for any species, never mind high-intelligence ones who are even more acutely aware of what they're forced to perform. The physical mistreatment and psychological torture of circus elephants is long-documented, and yet it has taken this long for the so-called greatest show on Earth to do anything about it.

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Long after many zoos (including the famed Bronx Zoo) ceased keeping elephants in captivity since the kind of wide-open space they need to thrive is simply not available in the type of enclosed areas that are usually provided, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus just announced they are finally phasing out elephants in their show. Thirteen elephants are part of its traveling act, although by 2018, they will retire permanently to a conservation center in Florida with 40 of their predecessors, according to NBC News. The move will take a while in part because the facility needs to be renovated to make room for the new tenants.

The Ringling Bros.’ heart is in the right place, even if they also admitted the decision to phase them out was based in part on their wallet.

“This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995,” Kenneth Feld, CEO of the circus group, said in a statement.

Asian elephants are an endangered species, and the center operated by Ringling Bros. is focusing on saving them, including through a breeding program that has helped birth 26 elephants. The organization is also partnering with the Smithsonian Institute to help save juvenile elephants afflicted with various diseases.

The Ringling Bros.’ heart is in the right place, even if they also admitted the decision to phase them out was based in part on their wallet, as they’ve been inundated with “anti-circus” and “anti-elephant” lawsuits and ordinances, which are expensive to legislate.

Regardless of the reason, the Associated Press says the Human Society called the move “startling and tremendously exciting.”

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For my part, it’s also exciting to get to introduce my kids to a new form of entertainment that they can marvel at and learn from—there’s no question this will be a teachable moment to explain how elephants used to be incorporated in the show, and how the Ringling Bros. organization finally admitted that it wasn't doing the right thing by keeping these gentle giants employed. Tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels will continue to be used in their circus, although perhaps someday Ringling Bros. might also go the way of circuses such as the Big Apple Circus, which uses only a few animals to entertain, and even then in an abundantly lighter and less we-need-to-hit-you-to-get-you-to-perform kind of way.

So get the cake and balloons ready at the concession stand, Ringling Bros. We'll be seeing you in three years.

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