After more than a century of setting up the big-top around the country, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus has shut down.
The circus ended its run after 146 years with its final show at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, on May 21.
According to a statement by Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which produces the circus, "Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company."
Animal rights groups gave the decision a standing ovation. Charges of abuse of tigers and elephants — including continued use of bullhooks despite bans — kept the spotlight on the company, but not in a way that benefited the business.
The Humane Society of the United States, a longtime critic of the show's animal welfare practices, acknowledged that Ringling Bros. has made changes over the past century and a half, but claims the changes didn't happen quickly enough. "It's just not acceptable any longer to cart wild animals from city to city and have them perform silly yet coercive stunts," the society's President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said in a statement Sunday. "I know this is bittersweet for the Feld family, but I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts," Pacelle said. In 2011, Feld Entertainment agreed to pay a fine of $270,000 to the US Department of Agriculture for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
During the last performance, Alexander Lacey, the circus’s big cat trainer, told the crowd that the circus had bred, raised and cared for 500 lions and tigers. In that evening's show were the ninth generation of tigers and 11th generation of lions, he said.
“People are not really concerned with wildlife until they feel it and see it and enjoy it," Lacey said, according to USA Today, "and love it as much as I do — until they’ve seen it with their own eyes."
He told the audience, "It’s so important that you carry on supporting all those people that do dedicate their lives to these animals. Support good, well-run circuses. Support good, well-run zoos. Support good, well-run public parks that look after these animals.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in January 2017.