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Alex Beam

Circus elephants are a thing of the past

Jumbo, the famous elephant which belonged to Phineas Taylor Barnum, at London Zoo in Regent's Park.London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images/Getty

Next Sunday at Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center, a venerable American tradition comes to an end. For the last time, elephants will perform in a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

The elephants are part of a 146-year-old tradition deeply ingrained in popular culture. When you order “jumbo fries,” you are invoking the memory of an African elephant drafted into the circus by P.T. Barnum in 1882. Barnum donated Jumbo’s stuffed hide to Tufts University, whose sports teams have since been nicknamed the Jumbos.

In 1955, Ringling paraded 50 elephants down Manhattan’s Second Avenue on their way to Madison Square Garden. A Ringling circus now has only five elephants, and they often steal into cities at nighttime to avoid animal rights protesters.

Ringling is retiring its elephants after a tumultuous quarter-century of litigation with its adversaries, who have accused the circus of all manner of cruelty and abuse. Dirty tricks have been the order of the day. In 1989, Virginia-based Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling, hired a security firm led by an ex-CIA executive to infiltrate organizations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and PAWS (the Performing Animal Welfare Society).

More recently, Feld won more than $24 million in settlements from the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, when courts ruled that anti-circus advocates paid a whistleblower who offered tainted testimony against Ringling.


But the activists’ strategy of convincing large cities such as Los Angeles and Oakland to enact de facto bans on elephant acts has prevailed: The 10 elephants now touring with two Ringling shows will be returned to the company’s “retirement” facility, the Center for Elephant Conservation, in Polk City, Florida next month.

Now what?

PETA, perhaps Ringling’s most fervent detractor, plans to carry its anti-Ringling campaign to the remote 200-acre facility west of Orlando. PETA likens the CEC to a concentration camp for pachyderms. According to a PETA report issued earlier this year, “The CEC routinely chains elephants . . . for prolonged periods and abuses them with bullhooks and electric prods. The center is also a hotbed of tuberculosis.”


It is true that Ringling chains all its elephants in barns at night. A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 5 percent of the 280 captive Asian elephants in North America are infected with TB. PETA veterinarians say the number is 12 percent.

“We have had elephants who have tested positive for TB, and we immediately treated them,” says Feld spokesman Stephen Paine. “Calling the center a ‘hotbed’ of TB is a dishonest attempt by PETA to advance its own ends.”

I visited the center, which is closed to the public, in February. It looks like an open-air zoo, with a few of the elephants tooling around paddocks about four or five acres in area. (About a third of the 30 elephants were outdoors when I visited.) Some of the 10 males, generally more combative than females, were essentially imprisoned.

“They are a management nightmare,” said Janice Aria, director of animal stewardship. “All they do is breed and defend. They are hard-wired to fight to the death.”

Where PETA sees a torture facility, Aria and her colleagues see a successful breeding farm that is adding to the population of an endangered species. The center has sent some animals to zoos, and made its herd available to cancer researchers, who are intrigued by the animals’ resistance to the disease. Predictably, the CEC is a hotbed of anti-animal-activist animus.


“There is a misconception that we are running a puppy mill here,” Aria told me. “Our enemies say our elephants are better off dead than in captivity.”

PETA thinks Ringling’s elephants should be placed in sanctuaries in California and Tennessee. Ringling boss Kenneth Feld has repeatedly said that “sanctuary is a march to extinction,” meaning that it is better to add to the herd than watch it die out.

Not so, says PETA counsel Rachel Mathews. “They shouldn’t continue to breed them even though there is no chance they will ever be in the wild. It’s putting the con in conservation.”

Ringling and its detractors agree on one thing: The 40 elephants, 16 of whom were born in the wild, can never return to the state of nature. For one thing, they would probably starve. For another, the Asian elephants’ habitat is rapidly disappearing.

“There is no wild,” Aria commented, ruefully.

So for now, Florida will have to do.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at