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Ringling Brothers Officially Retires Circus Elephants


The elephants at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus took their final bow last night. They head for retirement today. It's the end of the circus's battle with animal rights groups and one that has stretched on for decades. NPR's Arun Rath went to Providence, R.I., last night to catch the elephant's swan song.

ARUN RATH, BYLINE: I haven't been to an American circus since I was a child in the 1970s, but it's as big and bright and loud as I remember. Last night's performance may have been a farewell, but the circus doesn't do sad.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Tonight we are all witnessing history as our nation's largest living legends take to the arena floor for their final bow.

RATH: Rocky Reynolds and his 8-year-old son Talon were sad to say goodbye to the elephants.

ROCKY REYNOLDS: That's just unfortunate for the sake of the little kids that don't get to see them all the time.


REYNOLDS: You think they should go back out to the wilderness, be with their friends and stuff or come here and entertain the kids?

TALON: Come here, and entertain the kids.

RATH: But Rocky thinks retiring the elephants is the right thing to do.

REYNOLDS: I think it's a real good thing that they go back to be in their habitat for sure.

RATH: The end of dancing elephants in the ring won't end battles with animal rights groups. PETA has called for the circus to end all animal acts, and they've long criticized the treatment of animals at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation where these elephants will be sent. Janice Aria is the director of animal stewardship at the center. She stands by their treatment of the elephants, and she's sad to see them stop performing.

JANICE ARIA: There's a great degree of heartache for me because I love elephants in the circus, and I know hundreds of thousands of people do. So I'm not going to lie to you. I'm going to be crying when that last gray but goes through the curtain...

RATH: (Laughter).

ARIA: ...The final time. I will.

ALANA FELD: It's definitely emotional. I mean, I've grown up around elephants my entire life.

RATH: Alana Feld is the producer of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Her family runs Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the circus, for decades.

FELD: Bittersweet is really a great word to describe it. And Ringling Bros. is 145 years old. Ringling Bros. has been around that long because it's constantly changing, and it has to change to be relevant.

RATH: But the most striking thing about the circus in 2016 is how much it hasn't changed. The acrobats, the clowns, the stunt performers and animal acts all felt so similar to that first show I'd seen back in the '70s, and that's what seemed to draw in so many other parents like me even as the living, lumbering symbols of the circus are sent to retire in Florida. Arun Rath, NPR News, Providence.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: The most dedicated trainers along with the one and only...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beginning in October 2015, Arun Rath assumed a new role as a shared correspondent for NPR and Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH News. He is based in the WGBH newsroom and his time is divided between filing national stories for NPR and local stories for WGBH News.
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