The End of Ringling Bros is a Victory for Animal Protection Advocates

Jan 19, 2017

When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced Saturday that it will close after 146 years in business this spring, it was a major victory for the animal protection movement. While the decision may have been a surprise to most people, advocacy organizations, including The Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have campaigned for many years to stop the use of animals in circuses. In fact, just last year Ringling Bros. announced that they would stop using elephants in shows while continuing to use other animals. The circus never recovered.

Like all successful movements, there are countless individuals and groups around the world who can share credit for this successful campaign. The CEO of Ringling’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, admits it wasn’t “any one thing” that did them in. Social change involves many factors, so let’s consider what many animal advocates did to contribute to this movement.

In nearly every city Ringling visited, individuals organized protests and handed out leaflets. They started and signed dozens of petitions on to add to the pressure, too. Campaigns against the use of wild animals in circuses gained more than one million signatures on since we established our petition platform.

Photo: PETA

To give you a sense of how relentless the pressure has been on Ringling from all angles, here are some examples of users in action:

But that’s just one piece of it. On top of that, undercover videos circulated online alleging mistreatment of animals. Los Angeles and later all of California banned the use of bullhooks on elephants. At the urging of the public, other cities also passed ordinances making it more difficult for Ringling to operate. Celebrities raised concerns to the White House, and they participated in international ad campaigns against circuses. Ringling Bros was fined by the USDA. They did come out on the winning side of an expensive 16-year legal battle with animal protection groups — but still devoted staff time and energy to the distraction rather than focusing on their business.

Meanwhile, families these days have lower cost, easier-to-access digital entertainment options to keep kids’ attention. Logistics also became more difficult as costs rose for Ringling to transport wild animals around the country by trains and trucks. And families are increasingly uneasy with the use of wild animals for entertainment as seen in SeaWorld’s poorly performing  business in the last several years. All these factors add up.


Now that Ringling Bros is closing down, the executive director of Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries started a new petition to ensure the animals are sent to sanctuaries.

It’s rare for a single petition, protest, or outspoken celebrity to take credit for any victory, but the animal protection movement is proof that small, concerted actions can lead to massive changes if the public sticks with it.

Pulin Modi is a senior campaigner at