The ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ Is Coming Back—Without Circus Animals

Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey was to close in 2017 for good. The self-proclaimed “Greatest Show on Earth,” which had been in operation for 146 years, couldn’t keep pace with the rapid evolution of the modern world—the cultural icon, facing animal welfare issues and grim economic realities, folded for the last time.

After a five-year break, the show is back. Sarah Maslin Nir, a reporter for the New York Times, reports that the Circus will return next fall. It will be different than the three-ring show of old. The Circus will be more narrative-driven and online. It won’t have any animals.

Jennifer Lemmer Posey is the curator of Circus for the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. She told the New York Times that the show had to “respond to our modern lives in a flexible way,” since it was “hard” to amaze us the way it used to.

The new Circus will try to create awe through innovative means. Feld Entertainment, the company that owns Disney on Ice, Monster Jam, and other shows, plans to create an interactive presentation focusing on people. The exhibition will not only showcase the incredible things humans are capable of, but it will also highlight their stories.

Auditions have been held worldwide in Las Vegas and Ethiopia to find talent. The tour will debut on September 28th, 2023. The Circus will start rehearsing for its next time in June. According to the Times, the Circus also plans to experiment with TikTok and even brand NFTs.

In recent decades, the public’s growing disapproval of show animals has led to declining ticket sales and expensive legal battles. According to The Guardian, Feld Entertainment was hit with several lawsuits by animal rights groups. The USDA fined the Circus $270,000 in 2011 after Mother Jones Deborah Nelson published a report showing that the elephants of the Circus spent most of their lives chained up, sometimes in train cars filled with their excrement, and their keepers would whip them with bullhooks.

Local governments began implementing regulations to protect elephants in 2015. Some jurisdictions prohibited bullhooks, while others outright banned performing elephants. Four Paws International reports that over 150 localities across 37 states currently have regulations on using wild animals as performers.

In 2016, the Circus stopped using elephants as more cities opted not to participate in the traveling Circus. Theresa Machemer of the Smithsonian reported 2020 that about 30 elephants from the retired Circus were moved to a Florida wildlife conservation center.

PETA, a leading advocate of ending the use of animals in circuses, applauded this circus’ re-design. “Ringling has returned with a bang and transformed the saddest circus on Earth into an dazzling display human ingenuity, after 146+ years of animal abuse,” Rachel Mathews said to CBS MoneyWatch.

The “Greatest Show on Earth” first appeared in the late nineteenth century and featured several animals performing. Historian Janet M. Davis writes in Zocalo Public Square about how the Circus allowed Americans, isolated mainly by their vast geography and oceans that separated them from other continents, to explore the world’s wonders. Davis writes that “daily living abruptly stopped” whenever the Circus visited a town.

In 1882 P.T. Barnum bought “Jumbo,” the Elephant, from the London Zoological Society. He claimed that it was the most giant animal in the entire world. Barnum’s Jumbo obsession began in the United States after the elephant arrived. Barnum even walked Jumbo, along with 20 other elephants and 17 camels, across the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge to calm public fears that the bridge wouldn’t be able to hold the weight.

Davis, writing for PBS, writes that animal welfare activists protested Barnum’s Circus right from the beginning. In the 1920s, the Ringling Circus briefly stopped using lions, tigers, and other large animals in response to animal rights complaints. The “Greatest Show on Earth,” which closed in 2017, continued the tradition of circuses traveling by train.

Another circus relic that will be left behind is the mile-long train. The performers will travel from city to city by plane or car and stay in hotels rather than the specially-made train cars they used to live in. The Circus will save money by not worrying about permits and the safekeeping of animals in different locations. It may even ensure its survival for 150 more years.


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