Circus Elephants Are Getting The Early Retirement They Deserve, Thanks To Activists

This Ringling Bros. decision is 'one of the biggest announcements in the modern era of animal welfare,' according to animal rights advocates.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced in 2015 that they planned to phase out all elephants by 2018, but today (Jan. 11), the elephants are getting a major win: The circus just announced that it will instead retire all of its elephants by May of 2016 -- a year and a half early.

At this point, it's no secret that circus elephants are not treated kindly. They're forced to endure whipping, chains, electric shocks and painful jabs from sharp bullhooks in order to make them perform and keep them in line, beginning when they're still just little babies.

Animal rights activists have been working diligently for many years to raise awareness about circus cruelty and free elephants from these kinds of abuses, leading a number of cities and towns, including Los Angeles, to pass ordinances aimed at banning circuses that feature elephants from coming to their regions. For activists who've dedicated their lives to cause of helping animals, this announcement is a huge win.

"Symbolically, it's one of the biggest announcements in the modern era of animal welfare," Wayne Pacelle, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Society of the United States, said in an interview with NPR. "It's almost like the Berlin Wall within animal welfare."

According to a report from the Associated Press (AP), Feld Entertainment owns the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America. In addition to the eleven elephants that are still touring, there are 29 elephants already in retirement in Florida, and two additional elephants are currently on "breeding loans" to zoos.

"They'll be joining the rest of the herd," Alana Feld, Ringling's executive vice president and show producer, who is also part of the family that owns Feld Entertainment, told the AP.

The AP report notes that Feld Entertainment, the circus's parent company, said that "all of the iconic elephants will be permanently retired to the company's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida."

Stephen Payne, a spokesperson for Feld Entertainment, told NPR, "Ringling Bros. has survived for 145 years by evolving with changing times. The circus today looks nothing like the circus did 20 years ago or 30 years ago when I went as a kid. So as we listened to our customers and looked at the legislative landscape, we all decided that the best thing to do was to phase the elephants out of the circus."

Pacelle, with the Humane Society, responded by saying that the Ringling Bros.' evolution on this matter is truly promising for the future of animal welfare.

"If that kind of company recognizes that it can no longer succeed economically," Pacelle said, "and that the best course forward is to get rid of these elephants in its circus act, which is central to its brand, I just see so many other companies following suit."

This calls for a celebration.