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All Remaining Ringling Bros. Circus Elephants Are Retiring to Florida

“It's kind of a new age in our understanding.”

Ringling Bros elephants perform in 2009. Image by Laura Bittner via Flickr

The esteemed elephants of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus performed for the last time Sunday, officially entering retirement and signaling the end of the show’s long-standing use of trained pachyderms. USA Today reports the circus has been employing elephants in their acts for 145 years, but local and global restrictions on the use of live animals in such performances and continued pressure from animal rights activists have caused Ringling Bros. to finally conclude the practice.

Two shows in Providence, RI and Wilkes Barre, PA, marked the elephants’ last night in the spotlight, with the scene in Pennsylvania described as a collision of “bittersweet” feelings from trainers and fans, and protesters bearing signs with slogans like, “Ban circus animals” and “Cruelty is not entertainment.”

Ryan Henning, an animal trainer and 12-year veteran of Ringling Bros., said he would miss the animals. “When the elephants peek through the curtain ... the crowd's reaction just goes crazy,” he told USA Today.

“I think people will get a lot more satisfaction out of elephants living their real lives than to see them performing as clowns,” Ronald B. Tobias, author of Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America, told the Associated Press. “It's kind of a new age in our understanding and sympathy and empathy toward elephants.”

And so it is. In the last few decades, elephants’ rare intelligence, long memories, and unique social proclivities have marked them as creatures particularly deserving of our fascination, empathy, and respect. To force the independent-minded animals into dancing and doing tricks for human audiences, circuses have long used cruel techniques like whipping, electrocution, and bullhooks—sharpened metal implements used to goad the elephants—when they don’t comply with trainers. As these practices become more well known, and municipalities move to ban circus-related animal abuse, the spectacle and amazement at watching the mammoth beasts prance and tumble has become tainted with the knowledge of their suffering.

And that’s just the physical stuff. Living and performing with a circus can be emotionally scarring and mentally tortuous for elephants. In a 2006 New York Times piece, author Charles Siebert wrote that after capture, elephants “are then dispatched to a foreign environment to work either as performers or laborers, all the while being kept in relative confinement and isolation, a kind of living death for an animal as socially developed and dependent as we now know elephants to be.”

That’s why animal welfare experts and activists rejoiced last year after Ringling Bros.—which accrued $270,000 in fines for violations of the Animal Welfare Act in 2011 alone—announced they would end their remaining elephant acts by 2018. But it wouldn’t even end up taking that long; the pressure of growing public distaste for these shows and the associated rising costs of transporting and housing the animals caused the circus to relent even sooner, announcing an early retirement for the elephants in January.

“Rather than fight city hall, we decided to take those resources and use them for conservation of the species,” Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros., told the New York Times.

For those that fought for elephant liberation, the move is just one small step on the road to freeing all animals from cruel training methods, inhumane confinement, and unhappy lives. “The last #RinglingBros performance with elephants may be tonight, but they should end ALL animal acts!” tweeted animal rights group PETA on Sunday night.

Now the sunsetting elephants will be moved to the circus’ 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, where they will join the largest herd in North America and can hopefully find a better life. A National Geographic trip to the Center in December described what the elephants there eat: “Favorites here are carrots, apples, and corn in the husk. Cheap bread, à la Wonder Bread, is a daily treat.” While the Center for Elephant Conservation has received its own share of criticism for its policies and the way it maintains the elephant herd, the move will surely take much stress off the animals, as they can finally socialize and amiably ambulate without trainers, crowds, or hot, bright lights pounding down on them night after night.

“They’ll be able to behave like elephants instead of circus animals,” DeeAnn Reeder, an animal behaviorist at Bucknell University, told USA Today.

Watch a short National Geographic video on the Center for Elephant Conservation below:

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