In 2017, when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced it would end its shows for good, company leadership cited declining ticket sales and high operating costs, saying the circus “had become an unsustainable business.” At the time, animal welfare advocates celebrated the move, arguing that performing animals such as elephants, big cats, and bears had been treated poorly and held in cramped, barren conditions.
Now Ringling is back—but this time, without animals.
On Friday, Ringling kicks off a national tour of “the greatest show on Earth” with human-only acts, including high-wire, trapeze, and BMX bicycle performances. Theme park attractions, touring exhibitions, and a Ringling documentary are also in the works, according to a press release. The new show will feature aerial contortion, foot juggling, modern clowns, and a 34.6-foot unicycle—and audience members will view the show from a curtainless 360-degree stage.
“Everything’s larger, bigger, brighter,” says Sabrina Lowe, senior director of global public relations for Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company. “Our goal is to create lasting memories for families.”
Animal welfare advocates are also welcoming Ringling’s reinvention.
“People don’t want to see animals bullied into performing tricks,” Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement. “We’re glad to be able to celebrate Ringling and other entertainment companies that have taken the beautiful step forward toward animal-free entertainment.”
Ringling is now joining the ranks of performers like Cirque du Soleil and Circus Vargas, which for years have put on successful shows without relying on animal performances. UniverSoul Circus, which has traditionally included animal performances, has recently hosted shows in several cities without animals, according to PETA. (Read more about how Ringling retired its elephants in 2016.)
Though animal performances were once a staple of circuses, in recent years, they’ve lost favor with some audiences. A 2019 poll showed that the majority of Americans felt circus animals weren’t treated well, and more than half of respondents favored a ban on the use of wild animals in such performances. In 2016 several states and localities began banning the use of wild animals in circuses, which impeded businesses like Ringling. (Read more about the decline of circuses across the U.S.)
“Ringling’s new show will be more dazzling, more satisfying, and more successful without the whips and terrified animals,” Block said. “It’s simply in keeping with the more enlightened time in which we live.”
The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to [email protected]. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.