Thirty years ago, from their living room in the tiny Northern California town of Galt, Ed Stewart and Pat Derby began their public campaign against circuses, putting a spotlight on iconic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for its treatment of elephants and other animals that performed to huge crowds across the country.
The couple made and circulated videos showing circus elephants that, they argued, were cruelly chained, poked with bullhooks and lingered in their own urine and feces. Their nonprofit sanctuary, the Performing Animal Welfare Society, led protests, filed complaints and initiated lawsuits. Their work helped provoke significant changes, including a ban on the use of bullhooks, or elephant goads, on captive elephants in California. It contributed to the end to the use of elephants in Ringling performances, and led to a legal settlement that allowed some of the company’s elephants to retire to the sprawling sanctuary in Calaveras County.
When Ringling announced this weekend that the Greatest Show on Earth would soon be folding its tents for good after 146 years, citing in part a drop in ticket sales attributed to the absence of elephants in its performances, PAWS counted it as a victory.
“It’s a win for the animals,” said Stewart, who lost Derby to cancer in 2013.
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In a written statement, Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company, said its decision to shut down was a result of high costs and plummeting public interest. Following the removal of elephants from the circuses, Feld said, the company “saw a decline in ticket sales greater than could be anticipated.”
“We are grateful to the hundreds of millions of fans who have experienced Ringling Bros. over the years,” said CEO Kenneth Feld. “Between now and May, we will give them one last chance to experience the joy and wonder of Ringling Bros.”
Though Ringling is the largest and most famous circus in the country, the show will go on for dozens of others. Animal-welfare groups and the public will continue to put pressure on them to phase out elephants and other species from their performances, Stewart predicted. Circuses that feature human performers only, such as Cirque du Soleil, may be the standard in years to come, he said.
Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States, agreed.
“Ringling Bros. has changed a great deal over a century and a half, but not fast enough, Pacelle said. “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.”
PAWS played a key role in the evolution. It routinely led protests when Ringling hauled its animal performers into Sacramento, unloading them from rail cars and parading them to Arco Arena. Armed with video cameras, Derby and Stewart decried the use of animals in circuses as exploitative and abusive. They urged families who arrived at the arena to consider the plight of the animals.
The protests grew year by year, “and eventually we reached groups all over the world” that pressed for change, Stewart said.
Ringling’s demise, Stewart said, is part of the organization’s legacy.
“I only wish that Pat were here to see it,” he said.