After 6 Years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Makes a Comeback — Without Animals

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Sep. 18 2023, Updated 10:19 a.m. ET

Circus performer on a Ringling Bros. elephant in front of the U.S. Capitol
Source: Getty Images

A Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey performer waves from atop an elephant on the National Mall in front of the U.S. Capitol during the annual Pachyderm Parade on Capitol Hill March 22, 2011.

In 2017, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus permanently shut down, after 146 years in business. It was something that animal rights activists applauded, as they had been campaigning for the world-famous circus to stop using animals in its acts for decades.

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Five years later, in 2022, the Ringling Bros. Circus announced that The Greatest Show on Earth would soon resume — without animals, for the very first time. And now, in September 2023, the show is preparing to make its grand return. Keep reading for the details.

A circus trainer and two tigers perform on stage
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Big Cat Trainer and Presenter Alexander Lacey performs on the final day of the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus on May 21, 2017.

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The Ringling Bros. circus is making a comeback — but the animals are not.

On May 18, 2022, Feld Entertainment announced that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is officially back in business, with The Greatest Show On Earth set to return on Sept. 28, 2023, when it will tour across over 50 cities across the U.S. and North America.

As of Sept. 18, 2023, it looks as though the tour is now set to officially kick off on Sept. 29, 2023, in Louisiana's Bossier City.

The team behind the circus went on The TODAY Show in May 2022 to share the news, where they confirmed that the revamped show will not feature any animals.

“We will not be touring animals,” Juliette Feld, the COO of Feld Entertainment, confirmed on the talk show. “That is the past. The great thing is that we’ve had a blank piece of paper to reimagine,” added CEO Kenneth Feld.

The show previously used animals including tigers, monkeys, and elephants, the latter of whom were sent to retire at a sanctuary in Florida after the show shut down.

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To make up for the lack of animal performances — as well as traditional clowns, which will no longer be in the show either — the circus will incorporate impressive new human feats, new technologies, and even interactive social media elements.

According to Ringling's website, some of the exciting new human acts coming to The Greatest Show on Earth show include: the Double Wheel of Destiny act by Ray Navas and his acrobats, a balancing act by the Black Diamond Trio, and a teeterboard act by the Troupe Brothers.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performers waving to the crowd
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Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson performs in the closing number on the final day of the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus.

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Animal rights advocates are applauding Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for quitting animals.

Animal advocates are thrilled that one of the most famous circuses on Earth is joining the growing list of animal-free circuses.

"One thing is certain from our point of view: Ringling’s new show will be more dazzling, more satisfying and more successful without the whips and terrified animals. It’s simply in keeping with the more enlightened time in which we live," stated Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, on Sept. 18, 2023.

"We’re glad to be able to celebrate Ringling and other entertainment companies that have taken the beautiful step forward toward animal-free entertainment, something our movement has been pressing for at least a century," Block added. "And we’re determined to keep informing the general public about humane entertainment choices and to keep up the fight to pass bans on the use of elephants, tigers, bears, primates, and other animals used in traveling circuses until the show is finally over."

Block noted that despite the public being largely against circuses using animals for entertainment, some are still engaging in the practice, including Carden Circus, Shriner circuses, Loomis Bros. Circus and Culpepper & Merriweather Circus.

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"Ringling is returning with a bang, transforming the saddest show on Earth into a dazzling display of human ingenuity after 146 years of animal abuse,” Rachel Mathews, the Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement at PETA Foundation, said in a statement sent to Green Matters in May 2022. “PETA is cheering on the animal-free revamp.”

At the time, PETA also offered to give the web domain to Ringling to “celebrate the spotlight’s turn toward talented human professionals who choose to perform." As of September 2023, it seems as though Ringling has not accepted PETA's offer, as the domain still redirects to a page on PETA’s website that describes some of the abuses animals are subjected to in the circus.

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A person in a bear costume holds up a PETA sign that says "bye-bye animal abusers"
Source: Getty Images

Members of PETA picket on the final day of the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Before Ringling shut down, PETA shared images of behind-the-scenes cruelty at The Greatest Show on Earth on many occasions. PETA found evidence of Ringling trainers: pulling baby elephants away from their mothers; forcing baby elephants to spend months straight standing on concrete floors; holding baby elephants down with tightly-fastened ropes; beating elephants; and covering up elephants’ bloody wounds with gray blood coagulants.

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And in general, circus animals are subject to perpetual confinement to trailers; insufficient medical care; being threatened with violence to get them to learn tricks; and being forced to perform tricks.

Clearly, Ringling has realized forcing animals to perform is a way of the past. In fact, there are certain places that prohibit circuses from using wild animals, including California, New Jersey, Hawaii, and France.

There are also some circuses employing technology-based alternatives to live animals. For instance, Germany’s Circus Roncalli uses hologram animals, and PETA created an animatronic elephant named Ellie, voiced by actress Priyanka Chopra.

With so many other ways to entertain and wow audiences sans animal cruelty, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is truly about to become the happiest show on Earth.

This article, originally published on May 18, 2022, has been updated.

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