Why animal rights groups pushed Ringling Bros. to retire elephants

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    Since the turn of the last century, the late 1800s, P.T. Barnum has been known for spectacle, big top shows, and elephants.

    But the animals' treatment, often criticized as cruel, has been the subject of ever-widening lawsuits and scrutiny. Today, Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus bowed out of the fight, announcing that, by 2018, all elephant performances will end.

    Ringling's parent company owns 43 of the pachyderms, 13 still touring and performing in 1,000 shows a year.

    The Humane Society was one of the animal rights groups pressuring the company. Its president, Wayne Pacelle, joins me now.

    Mr. Pacelle, many of us have been to the circus, and we don't necessarily see what the problem is. What's the problem?

  • WAYNE PACELLE, CEO, Humane Society:

    Well, there's what happens in the three rings, but really the big story and the backstory is what happens to animals that are in training, where they're coercively trained and dominated, sometimes hit with bullhooks, which is a broom handle with a sharp metal object at the end of it.

    They're often on chains for 20 or 22 hours a day. And they're really sent on boxcars on railroads to 100, 115 cities a year. So they're going from Detroit to Milwaukee to Minneapolis. That's no life for an elephant. These are highly intelligent, sociable animals. In the wild, they migrate 40 miles a day. They live with the mothers and the grandmothers and the babies.

    You know, life on a chain to do a silly stunt, I think a lot of people question in 2015 whether that is an appropriate activity.


    Now, the Humane Society has been part of this legal complaint over the years. There are now only 13, as I just said, of these elephants performing.

    It seems that this is more symbolic than having an actual effect.


    Well, there are a lot of issues that we work on that deal with lots of animals, when we deal with factory farms and the confinement of animals in gestation crates or we outlaw cockfighting.

    This is a small number of animals, but very significant symbolically for us, because Feld Entertainment and Ringling Bros. has been a very stubborn adversary for the humane movement, for the Humane Society of the United States and other organizations.

    They have fought us at the local level, state level, federal level. And I thought, frankly, that this would be one of the last groups to fold in terms of exploitative practices. I think the "Blackfish" documentary about SeaWorld was a big moment in having people reflect on whether we should be keeping the most intelligent wild animals in small tanks or in three-ring circuses.


    Did Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, did they concede any mistreatment in folding, as in — to use your term?


    Well, I think, today's announcement, they said that their customers really began to question what was going on with the elephants. And I think just the drum…


    Well, they also said they just didn't want to go from jurisdiction to jurisdiction fighting different battles.




    But I didn't hear them say, and we admit that we were mis — abusing these elephants.


    No, I think that the clamor and all of those local battles did take its toll, but I also think they explicitly said many of their customers were concerned about the treatment of the elephants.

    Just not to say about a specific incident of abuse, but should elephants be used to do stunts, when these are the biggest land mammals in the world? They are so smart. Twenty-two hours a day on chains? This is not 1950 or 1900. This is a new era for our consideration of animals.


    Well, in 2018, it all ends.

    Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society, thank you very much.


    Thank you, Gwen.