When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced late Saturday that it would permanently end all of its performances this May after a 146-year run, there seemed to be a collective gasp online, along with a smattering of nostalgia for “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
The show has been, after all, nearly synonymous with “the circus” in the United States since the 1800s, when showman Phineas Taylor Barnum partnered with ringmaster James A. Bailey to produce an exhibition of animals and human oddities. Meanwhile, five brothers from the Ringling family in Wisconsin had set up their own variety act.
After they merged, the circus spent decades touring the U.S. by train, transporting its iconic spectacle — along with hundreds of animals, performers and big-top tents — from city to city.
However, in recent years, the circus had been facing mounting obstacles that even its most acrobatic members could not overcome: declining ticket sales, high operating costs and an increasingly negative public sentiment about forcing captive wild animals to perform as entertainment.
“There isn’t any one thing,” Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, told the Associated Press. “This has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family.”
His father, Irvin Feld, bought the circus in 1967, and it has been operated by the family-owned Feld Entertainment since. Today, the company has about 500 employees, who were informed Saturday night about the closure.
Kenneth Feld told the AP that it was becoming increasingly difficult to make a traveling circus viable and relevant in a world of modern entertainment.
“Try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes,” he added, referring to the show’s 12-minute tiger act.
Ringling Bros. had also been the target of protests by animal rights groups and was involved in protracted legal battles with many of them.
In 2015, Ringling Bros. announced it would stop using elephants in its shows. The lumbering mammals delivered their final performances last May — dancing, spinning and standing on pedestals at the command of the ringmaster — and then were retired to a reserve in central Florida.
The move exacerbated the show’s demise; the elephants’ departure ultimately expedited what was a “difficult business decision.”
“Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop,” Kenneth Feld said in a statement Saturday. “This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.”
Among animal activist groups, news of its closure Saturday was met with a resounding cheer.
The Humane Society of the United States described itself as “long a bitter adversary of Feld Entertainment and Ringling Bros.” in its response to the news. In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the Humane Society, ending a 14-year fight over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants, the AP reported.
A major moment as big brands that harm animals fade away and more humane businesses emerge I applaud @RinglingBros announcement.
— Wayne Pacelle (@waynepacelle) January 15, 2017
“Ringling Bros. has changed a great deal over a century and a half, but not fast enough,” Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, said in a statement. “It’s just not acceptable any longer to cart wild animals from city to city and have them perform silly yet coercive stunts. I know this is bittersweet for the Feld family, but I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts.”
The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also welcomed the announcement Saturday night, calling it “the end of the saddest show on earth” and demanding that other acts follow suit.
“All other animal circuses, roadside zoos, and wild animal exhibitors, including marine amusement parks like SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, must take note: society has changed, eyes have been opened, people know now who these animals are, and we know it is wrong to capture and exploit them,” PETA said in a statement.
As The Washington Post’s Elahe Izadi reported in 2015, the death in 1998 of Kenny, a 3-year-old Asian elephant with the Ringling Bros., ultimately led to complaints about and greater attention to the treatment of the circus’s elephants:
He sat out a third show that day but was led into the arena to watch. Kenny died overnight in his stall.
His death triggered a series of events: A whistleblower tipped off People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the group said, and it contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency eventually brought a complaint that charged the circus with failing to handle Kenny in a way that “did not cause behavioral stress and unnecessary discomfort” and said that handlers made the young elephant perform even after discovering he was sick and needed to be seen by a veterinarian. Eventually, the USDA dropped the complaint and the circus’s parent company agreed to donate $20,000 to Asian elephant organizations.
Last year, California and Rhode Island moved to ban the use of the bullhook, also known as an elephant goad or ankus — a tool used to train elephants that activist groups describe as cruel and inhumane. The Rhode Island ban took effect Jan. 1. The California ban takes effect in 2018.
Ringling Bros. currently has two circus units: The final shows will be in Providence, R.I., on May 7, and in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21. While the show retired its elephants last year, the circus still has a huge menagerie, including lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas, according to the Associated Press.