It wasn't so long ago that little towns would effectively shut down when the traveling circus rolled in. It was a quieter time before smartphones, blockbuster movies at home and easy access to global travel — a simpler era when folks in small-town America were only too happy to drop everything for a breathtaking, bigger-than-life extravaganza under the big top. The circus brought them the world — exotic elephants, leaping lions, screwball clowns, death-defying acrobatics and "freak show" oddities like bearded ladies and dwarfs.
But that was then. Today, the thrill of watching lions being "tamed" and majestic elephants balancing on tiny pedestals doesn't feel quite so thrilling. These acts don't play like the grand, family-friendly spectacles they once were. Their power to enthrall and astonish has dimmed. They feel increasingly cruel and sad.
Under growing pressure from animal-rights groups, many countries and municipalities have banned the use of wild animals in circuses in recent years. And since last May when the iconic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus packed up "The Greatest Show on Earth" for the last time in its 146-year history, more people than ever before are debating whether it might be time for big tents everywhere to come down for good.
A good run
An 1897 Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth poster. (Photo: trialsanderrors [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
The history of the circus is a sprawling tale spanning centuries and continents.
The origins of the modern circus can be traced back to England more than 200 years ago where a veteran of the Seven Years War named Philip Astley assembled a show in a ring at his riding school featuring acrobatics, riding and clowning. In 1793, John Bill Ricketts, a trick rider who was trained by one of Astley's students, brought a similar act to America, performing in small, open-air wooden arenas that he erected city by city. He wowed audiences wherever he went, including President George Washington.
About the same time, impresarios began traveling from town to town with wild animal menageries. Eventually, animal-taming acts were added. Later, the distinction between menagerie and circus melded as equestrians and clowns joined these shows.
Joshua Purdy Brown of Somers, New York, was the first to erect a circus tent in 1825 in Wilmington, Delaware. Due to their portability and cost effectiveness, tents quickly caught on.
By the 1850s, some 30 circuses were traveling the country, becoming the nation's top entertainment draw. And after the Civil War with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, circuses only gained in popularity as they stretched from coast to coast.
Phineas Taylor "P.T." Barnum, who had run a museum of stuffed wild animals and live human oddities in New York City for years, caught the circus bug, too. Although he was 60 years old — an age when most people are slowing down — he folded his freak show into the circus concept in 1870 and took to the rails with his "Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus."
Over the next decade, Barnum enlarged his production into "The Greatest Show on Earth." But he was facing competition from a rival circus owned by James A. Bailey and his partners. The two men eventually joined forces in 1881.
Barnum and Bailey Circus became renowned for its spectacular performances and over-the-top pageantry. The giant show accommodated 10,000 spectators and featured three rings, two stages and an outer track for chariot races.
For a time, there was no bigger star than Jumbo, the legendary 12-foot, 6.5-ton elephant who later inspired Disney's "Dumbo." Sadly, his fame was short-lived. In one of the first high-profile tragedies involving circus animals, "The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race" was tragically plowed down by a freight train in 1885 as he was being loaded into his rail car. (If you want to more on the controversy surrounding Jumbo's demise and newly uncovered evidence of his mistreatment, The Sun explains it in detail.)
After Barnum's sudden death in 1891, Bailey carried on with the show, including a five-year stint in Europe starting in 1897. But when he returned to America in 1902, he discovered he'd been supplanted by five sibling up-and-comers and their glittering "Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals."
Bailey died in 1906, and the Ringling brothers bought Barnum and Bailey Circus, first running the two operations separately before consolidating them as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1919.
During the first half of the 20th century, Ringling and its many competitor circuses continued to reel in crowds. But as new forms of entertainment arrived and public tastes evolved, circus troupes began taking a financial hit. In 1956, market leader Ringling gave its last performance under the Big Top.
However, that wasn't the end. Rock 'n' roll concert pioneer Irvin Feld approached Ringling and suggested moving the circus indoors to city entertainment arenas. Feld took over booking and promoting Ringling's arena tours in 1957, and he and his brother Israel bought the whole operation in 1967. Their company, Feld Entertainment, ran Ringling until circus performers took their final bow in 2017.
The thrill is gone
Although circuses made a bit of a comeback after Feld revamped and revived Ringling, it didn't hold. For one thing, TV and other attention-grabbing diversions continued to snag a bigger share of the audience — a trend that has only accelerated.
Another problem: growing awareness about widespread abuse of circus animals. From big cats to bears, tales of cruelty are legion and harrowing. But nothing has triggered more outrage than elephant abuse.
This photo was taken by former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animal trainer, Sam Haddock, to document cruel training practices that often begin when animals are still babies. Haddock gave the photo to PETA, which featured it during protests against Ringling in 2010. (Photo: Sam Haddock [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Many circus elephants performing today were captured as babies in the wild, their panic-stricken mothers often murdered to pry them away. Others were born into captive breeding programs and taken from their mothers early on. For highly social creatures that form profound family bonds, the psychological damage is often lasting.
So is the physical damage. Circus life — with its cramped spaces, grueling travel schedules, chains, cages, forced daily performances and abusive training methods — is a far cry from life in the wild. Elephants don't naturally stand on their heads and lions instinctively avoid jumping through burning hoops. They must be forced into it with whips, electric prods, blowtorches and bullhooks, which are similar to fireplace pokers.
Not surprisingly, Ringling and other circuses have faced scorching criticism in recent years for these practices and have been repeatedly cited for violating the Animal Welfare Act.
According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), at least 35 elephants died in Ringling's care from 1992 until its end in 2017, including 8-month-old Riccardo, who was euthanized after a fall from a pedestal that fractured both his hind legs.
Entertainment without animals
Years of lobbying by animal-rights groups has prompted change. One such change is the rise of animal-free circuses, as Wanderlust magazine describes.
Animal-centric circuses have also increasingly dropped their animal acts, including Ringling, which announced in 2015 that it would voluntarily phase out elephant performances. Ironically, this also contributed to its decision to shutter the entire circus two years later. As noted in a Feld Entertainment press release: "The decision to end the circus tours was made as a result of high costs coupled with a decline in ticket sales, making the circus an unsustainable business for the company. Following the transition of the elephants off the circus, the company saw a decline in ticket sales greater than could have been anticipated."
Perhaps the greatest change has come from legislative action around the world. In recent years, more than 40 countries have outlawed the use of wild animals in circuses, including nations as diverse as Hungary, Slovenia, Iran, Guatemala and Israel. In addition, dozens of cities and municipalities in Canada and the United States have implemented full or partial animal bans. Several U.S. states are also considering similar prohibitions. Animal advocacy group Four Paws keeps a complete list of bans and restrictions, but here are some notable recent changes below.
Tigers are innately terrified of fire, so trainers must resort to punishment to force them to jump through flaming hoops. Awareness of abuse has prompted more governments to ban use of wild animals for human entertainment. (Photo: ~Pawsitive~Candie_N [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
United Kingdom: The British government announced in February 2018 that all wild animals will be banned from traveling circuses by 2020. The decision was made based on "ethical grounds" after several surveys showed public preference for animal-free entertainment. A similar ban was announced in Scotland in 2017, making it the first country in the UK to take action. One is also being considered in Wales.
India: The nation's Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change announced a ban on using elephants in circus performances in November 2017. The government had already banned bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and lions in 1998. Elephants weren't included then because they received protection under the Wildlife Protection Act. However, after a recent year-long investigation revealed widespread circus elephant cruelty, the government decided to fold them into the ban, which now forbids all wild animals for use in entertainment.
Italy: In November 2017, the Italian parliament announced a ban on wild animals in circuses and gave itself one year to lay out plans for implementation. Because circuses are popular in Italy — an estimated 100 were in operation at that time involving some 2,000 animals — it's considered a major victory by animal-rights advocates.
Ireland: The Emerald Isle enacted a ban against use of wild circus animals in November 2017, making it the 20th European Union member nation to do so. The law went into effect in January 2018.
United States: New Jersey almost became the first state to outlaw exotic animals in circuses this year. Nosey's Law, named for a mistreated circus elephant who is now in an animal sanctuary, passed in the New Jersey Assembly and Senate. But Governor Chris Christie vetoed it on his last day in office. A new version was approved in the New Jersey Senate in June 2018, and hopes are high that the new governor, Phil Murphy, will sign it into law.
Other states are also considering wild animal bans, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Hawaii and New York. On the federal level, the latest version of a bipartisan bill called the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act (TEAPSA) was introduced in the House in March 2017. The bill would restrict the use of exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses. The sponsors of the bill, Reps. Ryan Costello (R-PA) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), are currently working to build support.