SARASOTA — After Feld Entertainment terminated its 146-year-old Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus in May and retired its elephant act a year before that, one of its long-time animal-rights nemeses says the Ellenton-based live-show production company is now planning to quietly disperse its herd of pachyderms.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, long critical of Feld’s Center for Elephant Conservation (CEC) in rural Polk County, says mounting expenses from its 200-acre Indian elephant retirement home is a likely motivating factor.
“Feld is an entertainment company, it’s not in the business of conservation,” says PETA Foundation Associate Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Rachel Mathews. “It doesn’t make financial sense for them to maintain elephants. These elephants are sick, they’re crippled, they’re dealing with psychological stress, and Ringling sees an opportunity to get rid of one of its major costs.”
Billionaire Ringling owner Kenneth Feld announced his intentions to pull the plug on “The Greatest Show On Earth” in January, and blamed slumping ticket sales largely on a 2016 decision to retire the elephant acts. Feld acknowledged that pressure from animal rights activists played a role in the decision, although he pointed out that Ringling repeatedly prevailed in litigation over the issues. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals settled in court for $9.3 million, and other groups settled with Feld for $15.75 million.
Feld spokeswoman Lisa Taylor said, “What I can tell you is, the CEC is still open and the elephants are still there.” However, Feld’s CEC website is not functioning, and has apparently been down for weeks.
Ringling’s circus elephants were put out to pasture with great fanfare in May 2016. As media cameras rolled, 21 of the CEC’s 39 residents made their final single-file curtain call before chowing down on a smorgasbord of bread, veggies and fruit.
Representatives for the 22-year-old CEC also explained during the press event how the elephants were in service to science, specifically the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City. Elephants have genes that aggressively attack and destroy cancer cells, and researchers had been studying their blood samples since 2014.
Assistant animal superintendent Ryan Henning told the media the CEC hoped to expand the numbers of this endangered species on its annual budget of $6 million.
By the summer of 2016, however, two CEC elephants — a pair of 40-year-olds named Karen and Nicole — had been sold to the San Antonio Zoo. Last November, two more Ringling elephants —females Sunny and Rudy — arrived at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio.
On Thursday, the Federal Register published a permit application by Feld Entertainment for a “captive-bred wildlife registration under 50 CFR 17.21(g) for Asian elephant (Elephas maximums) to enhance the propagation or survival of the species.” That provision allows for owners of captive-bred endangered species to sell their animals.
Feld’s existing permit expired in May. The application published Thursday, submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also indicated the CEC had lost two young male elephants to a fatal herpes virus in 2016.
“What it shows us is that Ringling is trying to conceal things from the public,” said Mathews. “In January 2016 they announced the death of an elephant calf named Mike. The second death was not made public.”
In January 2016, PETA published a report detailing what it alleged were abusive animal husbandry conditions at CEC, as well as temporary federal quarantines due to tuberculosis outbreaks.
Mathews said PETA sources indicated Feld wants to relocate its elephants to White Oak Conservation Center, a foundation-supported, 10,000-acre sanctuary located 30 miles north of Jacksonville. “We think that’s a potential step up from where they are now,” said Mathews.
White Oak did not reply to a request for comment.
Feld’s Taylor did not respond to questions about PETA’s assertions.
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