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By Chris Jones Chicago Tribune (TNS)

The elephants are to be phased out of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Associated Press first reported Thursday morning. The lumbering pachyderms will be gone from the show by 2018. It will take that long for Ringling’s twin touring companies to fully turn over into new shows.

This news was a surprise.

For years, Feld Entertainment, which owns and runs the Ringling brand, has defended both its treatment of the elephants and their role in the self-styled “Greatest Show on Earth,” especially their ability to delight children.

Animal rights groups, likely to hail this news as a major victory, have accused the circus for years of mistreating its elephants. Groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have both picketed the circus and released what they have said was footage of cruelty behind the scenes. In response, Feld has long denied any and all accusations, insisting its animals are well-treated and a beloved and benign tradition.

What factors likely went into this decision?

Public sentiment was part of the equation, Alana Feld, the show’s producer acknowledged Thursday, telling the AP that “a lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”

But there are other issues in the ring.

For starters, the elephants who work in the circus are aging and ready for retirement, in most cases. Their care and feeding is expensive. The presence of pickets is uncomfortable for the circus customers, especially families (although it’s worth noting that Ringling has other animals in its shows, so it remains to be seen if the pickets will go away with this news).

And the longtime impresario at Ringling, Kenneth Feld, a die-hard defender of performing animals, has passed day-to-day control to his daughters, who likely express the changed sentiments of a younger generation.

Most telling of all, though, is the appearance (or imminent presence) of local legislation in some of the many markets to which the circus travels prohibiting or restricting its use of elephants.

Faced with the potential but highly impractical need to move its elephants in and out of the show depending on the market, Feld likely decided that it made sense to get ahead of that story and retire its hard-working elephants, who certainly have earned any pension coming their way in Florida.

Photo: Elephants performing at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri, November 8, 2008. (via Wikimedia Commons)

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