After 146 Years, 'Greatest Show on Earth' Closes

The American icon is felled by attendance, costs, animal rights concerns
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 15, 2017 5:58 AM CST
Big Top Goes Down: Ringling Bros. Circus Closing
A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey high wire act performs during a show Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, in Orlando, Fla.   (Chris O'Meara)

After 146 years, the curtain is coming down on "The Greatest Show on Earth." The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told the AP that the show will close forever in May. The iconic American spectacle was felled by a declining attendance, high operating costs, changing public tastes, and prolonged battles with animal rights groups. "There isn't any one thing," said Kenneth Feld, chair and CEO of Feld Entertainment. Ringling Bros. will perform 30 shows between now and May. A staple since the mid 1800s, as the 20th century went on, kids became less enthralled as TV, video games, and the internet captured young minds. "The competitor in many ways is time," said Feld, adding that moving the show by rail and other circus quirks—such as a traveling school for performers' kids—are throwbacks to another era. "It's a different model that we can't see how it works in today's world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price."

Feld and his daughter Juliette Feld, the company's COO, acknowledged another reality, and it was the one thing that initially drew millions: the animals. Ringling has been targeted by activists who say forcing animals to perform is cruel. "PETA heralds the end of what has been the saddest show on earth for wild animals, and asks all other animal circuses to follow suit, as this is a sign of changing times," said Ingrid Newkirk, PETA president. In May, after a long and costly legal battle, the company removed the elephants and sent the animals to live on a conservation farm in Florida. Attendance has been dropping for 10 years, said Juliette Feld, but when the elephants left, there was a "dramatic drop." "We know now that one of the major reasons people came to Ringling Bros. was getting to see elephants," she said. "We stand by that decision. We know it was the right decision." The Felds say their existing animals—lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos, and llamas—will go to suitable homes. (Read more Ringling Brothers stories.)

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