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A look at the recent history of Ringling Bros. animal rights controversies

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Posted at 9:54 AM, Mar 05, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-05 09:54:11-05

The announcement today that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will stop using elephants in its act by 2018 is one that will cease a century-old staple of the company’s shows.

Speaking with the Associated Press on Thursday, officials with Feld Entertainment, the circus’ parent company, pointed to “growing public concern about how the animals are treated.”

The company didn’t mention a specific incident that led to the landmark decision but a look at the circus’ recent history shows a number of animal right controversies just since the late 1990s.

In 1998, a 3-year-old elephant died after it was alleged the company forced the animal to perform two shows while it was sick. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s treatment of the sick elephant was in violation of the Animal Welfare Act, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The circus eventually settled with federal officials, donating $20,000 to elephant-related causes as part of the deal.

Also that year, the company came under fire after an employee shot and killed a bengal tiger after it mauled the man’s brother. The employee blasted the tiger five times with a shotgun, according to the AP.

In 1999, a four-year-old elephant died when it drowned in a pond while the circus was travelling through Texas. An investigation into the animal’s death was launched by the USDA because of a trainer’s use of a bull hook on the elephant while it was in the water. USDA officials claimed the instrument “created behavioral stress and trauma which precipitated in the physical harm and ultimate death of the animal."

A final review of the USDA’s allegations however, found the animal drowned after suffering irregular heartbeats “without any signs of distress or struggle.”

The circus was eventually vindicated completely in the long trial that stemmed from the young elephant’s death. The plaintiff in the case was a former trainer who it turned out had been paid nearly $200,000 by animal rights groups in return for his testimony against Ringling Bros. The company was eventually paid restitutions of $16 million from various animal advocacy groups because of the incident.

A sweeping USDA investigation into the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 2007 to 2011 resulted in record fines being levied against the company. The circus’ owners agreed to pay $270,000 to settle the matter, which alleged it violated the Animal Welfare Act in its treatment of several exotic animals, including elephants.

The investigation’s final report included findings that a 35-year-old Asian elephant was forced to perform despite being ill. It also found issues in how tigers and zebras were being contained by the circus.

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 30 elephants died while in Ringling Bros. care between 1993 and 2012. PETA officials also claim the average life expectancy of a circus elephant is 39 years but that they can live to be up to 70 years old in the wild.

In 2013, PETA worked with HBO on a documentary titled “An Apology to Elephants.” The film looked at Ringling Bros. treatment of elephants as well as other issues including the international ivory trade.

Over the years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus officials have defended the company’s treatment of animals. In 1995, the company established the Center for Elephant Conservation, a 200-acre facility in Florida designed to conserve and study Asian elephants.

Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.