May 19, 2022

My NY Times news feed reported Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced yesterday that after a five-year hiatus they would resume touring in the fall of 2023.  This will not be the same old circus, as the exotic animal acts that were once the mainstay will not be included.  The revamped show will focus on human feats, like Cirque du Soleil.  Ringling even hired Giulio Scatola, a veteran of Cirque du Soleil, as a director for the new production.  Scatola said he was influenced by “America’s Got Talent,” where contestants’ stories are as significant as their acts.  The business model is also different.  Rather than touring cross-country with 500 people and 100 animals in mile-long trains, the performers will drive or fly from city to city and stay in hotels.  Logistics are easier when you do not need to check in Dumbo.

When I looked online, I found Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is an American traveling circus company billed as The Greatest Show on Earth.  The predecessor shows began in 1871 and merged in 1919 when Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth joined with Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows.  Ringling brothers purchased Barnum & Bailey Ltd. following Bailey’s death in 1906, but they continued to run the circuses separately until merging in 1919.  The iconic “big top” tents were discontinued in 1957 for permanent venues like sports stadiums and arenas.  The circus sold back and forth between the Feld brothers and Mattel toy company between 1967 and 1981.  Since the death of Irvin Feld in 1984, the circus was part of Feld Entertainment.  Weakening attendance, animal rights protests, and high operating costs resulted in the last performance on May 21, 2017, when the circus closed after 146 years.

Over the years animal rights groups criticized the circus for their treatment of animals, saying using them to perform is cruel and unnecessary.  The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and other animal groups sued the circus in 2000, alleging that it violated the Endangered Species Act by its treatment of Asian elephants in its circus.  The US Department of Agriculture conducted inspections of the circus from 2007 to 2011, finding non-compliance with the agency’s regulations.  This led to complaints filed by PETA, and the circus agreed to pay a $270,000 fine, the largest civil penalty assessed against an exhibitor under the Animal Welfare Act.  Feld Entertainment announced in 2015 it would stop using elephants and retired them in 2016.  The 13 show elephants were sent to the circus’s Center for Elephant Conservation.  The circus said the action was not a result of animal rights allegations, but due to differences in local laws regarding whether elephants could be used in entertainment shows.  

THOUGHTS:  I recall attending a circus as a child growing up in rural Kansas.  This was not a large Ringling Brothers performance, but a small traveling circus held in the vacant field outside the nearest “big city”.  I was impressed by the eight row bleachers that lined the ring and the animal acts presented under the “Big Top”.  These were the first lions, tigers, and elephants I ever saw.  Now these exotic animals are common in zoos and wildlife parks where they roam large enclosures rather than small cages.  For many endangered species these are their only hope for reintroduction back into the wild.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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