The ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ Is Coming Back—Without Circus Animals

A tiger tamer with two tigers standing up
Tiger tamer Alexander Lacey gets his tigers on their feet in one of the final performances of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey closed in 2017, it was supposed to be for good. After 146 years in operation, the self-dubbed “Greatest Show on Earth” just couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced evolution of modern times. Facing animal welfare concerns and grim economic realities, the cultural icon folded up its tents for what seemed to be the last time.

Now, after a five-year hiatus, the show will go on. As the New York Times’ Sarah Maslin Nir reports, the circus will reopen next fall—and will look different from the three-ring extravaganza of yore. It’ll be more narrative-driven, more online, and, most notably, devoid of animals.

Jennifer Lemmer Posey, curator of circus at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, tells the New York Times the show needed to “respond to the world around it in a really flexible way” since modern life has made it “hard to awe us in the way that it used to be.”

The revamped circus will do its best to generate that awe in new ways. Feld Entertainment, which also owns Disney on Ice and Monster Jam, is planning an interactive, person-focused show that not only displays the amazing things humans can do, but also highlights their individual stories (think the acrobatic abilities of Cirque du Soleil with the background stories of “America’s Got Talent”).

Auditions have been held in cities across the globe like Las Vegas, Ethiopia, and Mongolia to find talent for the 50-plus city tour debuting on September 28, 2023. The next year will be a whirlwind for the circus, which will begin rehearsing in June. Per the Times, the circus will also dabble in TikTok and even branded NFTs.

Person in an animal costume holding a sign that says "Bye-Bye Animal Abusers"
A member of PETA celebrates the end of the circus in 2017. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Growing public outcry over the use of show animals was one of the factors that led to declining ticket sales—and expensive legal battles—in recent decades. The Guardian reports that Feld Entertainment has been slapped with a number of lawsuits from animal rights groups. In 2011, the USDA fined the circus $270,000 after Mother Jones’ Deborah Nelson published an investigation showing the circus’ elephants spent much of their lives chained in place, often in train cars piled with their own feces, and that their keepers sometimes whipped them with hooked poles known as bullhooks.

In 2015, local governments started implementing regulation to protect performing elephants. Some jurisdictions banned the use of bullhooks; others banned performing elephants outright. According to animal welfare organization Four Paws International, over 150 localities in 37 states have some kind of regulation related to the use of wild animals for performing purposes today.

As more and more cities effectively opted out of the touring circus, it retired the use of elephants in 2016. As Smithsonian’s Theresa Machemer reported in 2020, about 30 of the circus’ retired elephants were later moved to a Florida conservation center.

PETA, one of the main advocates of ending animal use in circuses, applauded the circus’ revamp. “Ringling is returning with a bang, transforming the saddest show on Earth into a dazzling display of human ingenuity after 146 years of animal abuse,” Rachel Mathews, PETA’s foundation director of captive animal law enforcement, said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch’s Kate Gibson.

When the “Greatest Show on Earth” first debuted in the late 19th century, performing animals were a major part of the attraction. Historian Janet M. Davis writes for Zócalo Public Square that the circus was a way for Americans—largely isolated in their locales by the country’s vast geography and the oceans separating them from other continents—to explore the wonders of the world, fauna among them. Davis writes that whenever the circus was in town, “daily life abruptly stopped.”

A group of clowns in a boat onstage
Clowns perform in the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2017.  Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In 1882, P.T. Barnum purchased “Jumbo” the Elephant from the London Zoological Society, which he claimed was the largest animal in the world. The elephant’s arrival sparked a Jumbo obsession in the United States, and Barnum even walked Jumbo, along with his other 20 elephants and 17 camels, across the newly-opened Brooklyn Bridge in 1884 to ease public worry that it wouldn’t hold the weight of traffic.

Animal welfare activists protested Barnum’s circus from the start, and in the 1920s the Ringling circus briefly stopped using lions and tigers in response to complaints from animal rights groups, Davis writes for PBS. Back then, circuses traveled via train from city to city, a tradition the “Greatest Show on Earth” upheld until its closing in 2017.

The mile-long train is another one of the circus relics being left behind in the new tour. Performers will travel from city to city via plane or car and will stay in hotels instead of the special-made train cars in which they used to reside. Not having to worry about the permitting and safekeeping of wild animals in different locales is expected to save the circus significant amounts of money—perhaps ensuring its survival for another 150 years.

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