Image courtesy Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Ringling Brothers to Shut Down Circus After 146 Years

| published January 15, 2017 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor

Citing a decade of declining ticket sales, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will shut down operations and cease all performances by May of 2017, bringing to an end more than 145 years of entertaining crowds and enthralling children. The company will close down all activities, sell off inventory, and lay off all of its employees no later than June.

The decision comes less than a year after the iconic circus ended all acts involving elephants after intense pressure from animal rights activists and protests. Though Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey executives say that the suspension of all elephant performances was not decisive, they also suggest that the absence of elephants served as the final wedge which drove many customers from the circus business model.

The Florida-based company employs more than 1500 people full-time and more than 3000 part time or under temporary arrangements. Most employees were informed of the decision on Saturday.

Company president and CEO Kenneth Feld—whose family has held the majority control of the circus for decades—said the decision was difficult and emotionally heartrending, but necessary to avoid continuing cash losses and full bankruptcy.

Ringling Brothers has fought multiple legal actions for decades, many of those fights with animal rights groups or environmental organizations. The iconic circus has also faced intensive pressure, heavy protest action and a variety of negative media attention for what many animal rights advocates say was a business model based upon cruelty to animals and animals held in captivity.

Ringling Brothers faced heavy fines in 2014 and 2015 for its elephant acts, and chose to settle multiple lawsuits by paying those fines while admitting no wrongdoing. It ceased all performances involving elephants in May of last year.

The company, however, prevailed in several lawsuits and even won several counter-suits in which attorney’s for Ringling Brothers successfully argued that the circus was the victim of false or fabricated information about its handling of animals. Numerous animal rights groups were forced to settle those legal actions in 2012 and again in 2015, but legal analysts suggest that those courtroom victories—which came after a decade of costly fights—were hollow wins for Ringling Brothers, which was already facing financial troubles stemming from declining ticket sales—much of it the result of shifting tastes of consumers who spend more time in front of computers and cell phones and less time traveling to entertainment venues.

In addition to its traveling shows—full-scale tent operations which have appeared in cities and towns across the United States and Canada for a century and a half—Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey will also terminate its permanent onsite shows in Providence, Rhode Island, Orlando, Florida, and Uniondale, New York. The company will shutter or sell all ownership or investment in more than a dozen theme park relationships, many of them in Florida.

The company will, however, maintain its marketing and theme park development operations, which include some contractual relationships with the creation of new rides and features.

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