Circus to end elephant acts amid concerns about how the animals are treated
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will phase out the show's elephants from its performances by 2018.
The circus told the Associated Press that growing public concern about how the animals are treated led to the decision.
Executives from Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company, said the decision to end the circus's century-old tradition of showcasing elephants was difficult and debated at length. Elephants have often been featured on Ringling's posters over the decades.
"There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," said Alana Feld, the company's executive vice president. "A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."
Feld owns 43 elephants, and 29 of the giant animals live at the company's 200-acre centre for elephant conservation in central Florida.
Thirteen animals will continue to tour with the circus before retiring to the centre by 2018. One elephant is on a breeding loan to the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas.
Another reason for the decision, company president Kenneth Feld said, was that certain US cities and counties have passed "anti-circus" and "anti-elephant" ordinances.
The company's three shows visit 115 cities throughout the year, and Mr Feld said it is expensive to fight legislation in each jurisdiction. It is also difficult to plan tours amid constantly changing regulations, he said.
"All of the resources used to fight these things can be put towards the elephants," Mr Feld said during an interview at the centre for elephant conservation. "We're not reacting to our critics; we're creating the greatest resource for the preservation of the Asian elephant."
The circus will continue to use other animals - this year it added a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders to its Circus Xtreme show. It is likely to showcase more motorsports, daredevils and feats of humans' physical capabilities. Ringling's popular Canada-based competitor, Cirque du Soleil, features human acts and does not use wild animals.
Feld owns the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America. It costs about 65,000 dollars (£42,600) yearly to care for each elephant, and Mr Feld said the company would have to build new structures to house the retiring elephants at the centre, located between Orlando and Tampa on a rural, ranch-like property.
Mr Feld said initially the centre will be open only to researchers, scientists and others studying the Asian elephant.
Eventually, he "hopes it expands to something the public will be able to see".
The centre's youngest elephant is Mike, who will be two in August, and the oldest is Mysore, who is 69. One elephant, six-year-old Barack, was conceived by artificial insemination. Since the centre opened in 1995, 26 elephants have been born there.
Ringling's elephants have been at the centre of lawsuits and ongoing complaints from animal rights activists.
In 2014, Feld Entertainment won 25.2 million dollars (£16.5 million) in settlements from a number of animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle over unproven allegations that Ringling circus employees mistreated elephants.
The initial lawsuit was filed in 2000 by a former Ringling barn helper who was later found to have been paid at least 190,000 dollars (£125,000) by the animal rights groups that helped bring the lawsuit. The judge called him "essentially a paid plaintiff" who lacked credibility and standing to sue. The judge rejected the abuse claims following a 2009 trial.
Mr Feld gave evidence during that trial about elephants' importance to the show.
"The symbol of the Greatest Show on Earth is the elephant, and that's what we've been known for throughout the world for more than a hundred years."
Mr Feld noted that when his father bought the circus in 1967, there was still a human sideshow featuring acts such as the bearded lady and other human oddities. His father did away with that, he said.
"We're always changing and we're always learning," he said.
Roughly 30 million people attend one of Feld's 5,000 live entertainment shows every year.
Within hours of the announcement, animal rights groups took credit for the decision, saying that the pressure put on the circus ultimately led to Feld's decision.
"For 35 years PETA has protested Ringling Brothers' cruelty to elephants," Ingrid E Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote in a statement.
"We know extreme abuse to these majestic animals occurs every single day, so if Ringling is really telling the truth about ending this horror, it will be a day to pop the champagne corks, and rejoice."