Text by Maymie Higgins. Photographs courtesy of the Creative Commons.
This week, Feld Entertainment announced that the thirteen elephants now traveling with the three Ringling Bros. Circus units will be retired in 2018. They will then join the remaining herd of more than 40 elephants at The Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.
On the one hand, this is a positive story of the environment. Asian elephants are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The IUCN crudely estimates that there are only 40,000-50,000 Asian elephants that remain in the wild. Retirement of the circus elephants appears to create one less demand for capturing wild elephants to be used in entertainment. However, generations of Ringling Bros. Circus elephants have been born from captive parents and therefore, for decades, have represented very little direct threat to wild elephant populations. But with any luck, this move by Feld Entertainment will motivate other organizations to stop the use of elephants in entertainment, including those that still obtain wild captured elephants.
There are some encouraging characteristics of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation. Their website is translucent in explaining the goals of the center and the credentials of their staff. The center also works in partnership with Rajarata University and Peradeniya Unversity, both in Sri Lanka, to exchange veterinary, research and husbandry information. In addition, the center partners with zoos that have Asian elephants, such as the Smithsonian National Zoo, to advance medical research that benefits both captive and wild elephants.
On the other hand, the news of future Ringling Bros. Circus elephant retirement is not a positive story of animal rights. Feld Entertainment notes in their press release, “The circus will continue to feature other extraordinary animal performers, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels”. This particular circus has a history of using elephants in their acts beginning in 1881 when P.T. Barnum bought the first elephant born in captivity and, a year later, bought the African born Jumbo. Must we wait another 137 years for tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels to be given the same consideration?
The IUCN estimates less than 3,000 tigers remain in the wild, listing all subspecies as endangered. The African lion is listed as vulnerable and estimated to have less than 100,000 in the wild. The Asiatic lion is listed as endangered with only an estimated 350 remaining in the wild. Bactrian camels, which are now used in a new act known as Circus Xtreme, are listed as critically endangered with less than a total of 1,000 remaining in the wild in China and Mongolia. But this now begs the question, “Does an animal species have to be endangered to be afforded freedom from the demands of a life in entertainment?” Are horses and dogs, as domesticated animals, not entitled to the same rights as endangered species?
Many of you may be thinking of the pieces I have written expressing my support of zoos and aquariums, including Sea World. What is interesting here is the commitment Feld Entertainment has in caring for their herd of elephants while phasing out their life of travel, training and entertaining. Their commitment claims to include work that will benefit conservation of the species, which is the same reason I support zoos and aquariums, with the exception of scenarios where animals are required to perform, such as in the Sea World marine mammal shows. Zoos and aquariums are often sanctuaries for species that have little to no wild habitat left due to human encroachment and habitat destruction. It appears circuses may be wisely following their lead.