The curtain fell a final time for elephants performing at Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus as the circus ended a practice that enthralled audiences for two centuries but became caught between animal rights activists’ concerns and Americans’ shifting views.
Six Asian elephants danced, balanced on each others’ backs and sat on their hind legs during their last show in Providence, Rhode Island on Sunday night.
“This is a very emotional time for us,” ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson told the crowd as the performance came to an end.
He called elephants beloved members of the circus family and thanked the animals for more than 100 years of service.
“We love our girls. Thank you so much for so many years of joy,” he said as the elephants left the ring for a final time. “That’s history tonight there, ladies and gentlemen, true American icons.”
Elephants have been used in the circus in America for more than 200 years. In the early 1800s, Hackaliah Bailey added the elephant “Old Bet” to his circus. PT Barnum added the African elephant he named “Jumbo” to “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1882.
“We came to say farewell to the elephants,” said Sheila Oliver, of East Providence, who brought her four-year-old daughter, Lilliana. “This is her first circus and, unfortunately, it’s their last one.”
Five elephants also performed earlier on Sunday in a Ringling Bros. show in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
The Providence show opened with the national anthem. An elephant carried a performer holding an American flag then stood at attention as the song ended. A few minutes later, six elephants entered the ring, each holding the tail of the one in front of her.
After Sunday’s performance, the animals will live at Ringling’s 200-acre Centre for Elephant Conservation in Florida, said Alana Feld, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus. Its herd of 40 Asian elephants, the largest in North America, will continue a breeding programme and be used in a pediatric cancer research project.
The Humane Society says more than a dozen circuses in the United States continue to use elephants. But none tour as widely or are as well-known as Ringling Bros. It’s also getting more difficult for circuses to tour with elephants. Dozens of cities have banned the use of bullhooks - used to train elephants - and some states are considering such legislation.
Before the show, around half a dozen protesters stood outside.