After 146 Years, Ringling Brothers Circus to Shut Down

The "Greatest Show on Earth" cited declining interest in the circus and costly lawsuits among the reasons for the decision.

Published Jan. 14, 2017

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, whose animal and human shows both delighted audiences and invited criticism and controversy, announced on 15 January 2017 that they will be shutting down their tours permanently in May 2017, after 146 years.

Officials with Ringling Bros. said that a variety of issues contributed to the decision. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's chief executive officer Kenneth Feld released a statement on the company's web site:

After much evaluation and deliberation, my family and I have made the difficult business decision that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® will hold its final performances in May of this year. Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.

Nearly 50 years ago, my father founded our company with the acquisition of Ringling Bros. The circus and its people have continually been a source of inspiration and joy to my family and me, which is why this was such a tough business decision to make. The decision was even more difficult because of the amazing fans that have become part of our extended circus family over the years, and we are extremely grateful to the millions of families who have made Ringling Bros. part of their lives for generations. We know Ringling Bros. isn’t only our family business, but also your family tradition.

In 1871, P. T. Barnum opened his Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus in Brooklyn.  He told friends and colleagues that he wanted to put on a legendary show:

"Greater than anything he had ever done," Barnum stated, "[It will be] the largest group of wonders ever known…My great desire is… to totally eclipse all other exhibitions in the world."

Barnum partnered with James Bailey and James Hutchison of The Great London Circus in 1887.  

Ringling Bros. was founded by Wisconsin brothers Albert and Otto Ringling in 1884.  Five more Ringling brothers eventually joined the circus, which specialized in acrobats, animal acts, and freak shows.  They bought out their largest competitor, now known as Barnum & Bailey, in 1907.  

The circus was such a success that it became an American icon and tradition for millions of families.  Public interest remained high well into the twentieth century, but began to wane after the 1950s, when movies and television became more standard entertainment.

The company came under heavy criticism in 2011, after videos released by animal rights organizations prompted a Mother Jones investigation, which found widespread abuse of its elephants:

They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity. Barack, a calf born on the eve of the president's inauguration, had to leave the tour in February for emergency treatment of herpes—the second time in a year. Since Kenny's death, 3 more of the 23 baby elephants born in Ringling's vaunted breeding program have died, all under disturbing circumstances that weren't fully revealed to the public.

Despite years of denials, Kenneth Feld has now admitted under oath that his trainers routinely "correct" elephants by hitting them with bullhooks, whipping them, and on occasion using electric prods. He even admitted to witnessing it.

Ringling Bros. stopped using elephants in 2016, after years of lengthy and costly legal battles.  

Brooke Binkowski is a former editor for Snopes.

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