After decades of denial, terrible press, court fights and anti-abuse law, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced Thursday that it will phase out the show's elephant acts from its performances by 2018.
"If Ringling is telling the truth about ending this horror, then it's a day to pop the champagne corks and rejoice" said officials of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA.
However, the animals rights group says that the elimination of elephants should occur immediately, not phased in by 2018. "If Ringling is serious about this decision, then it needs to end its use of elephants NOW."
An investigation by the ABC7 I-Team in 1995, "Tamed or Tortured," revealed the tactics employed by circus trainers and animal handlers to control elephants and teach them so-called "tricks." The I-Team showed how circus trainers used metal "bullhooks" on elephants. Circus executives maintained their methods were intended to humanely guide the animals and not inflict harm.
WATCH: Tamed or Tortured - Part 1
WATCH: Tamed or Tortured - Part 2
According to a statement from Feld Entertainment, Ringling's parent company, "this was not an easy decision, and we understand that it will come as a surprise to many of you." Elephants have been featured acts in Ringling's three-ring circuses the last 145 years and frequently spotlighted in their advertisements and posters.
The Feld family on Thursday claimed their decision resulted from a mood shift among consumers and they insist "this change is in no way a validation of the attacks by animal rights groups." The relentless pursuit and protests by groups such as PETA, years of disturbing video news reports and local government ordinances targeted elephant acts, undoubtedly influenced public opinion and the "mood shift" cited by Ringling executives.
The company's three shows visit 115 cities throughout the year- including Chicago and Rosemont- and company president Kenneth Feld said it's expensive to fight legislation in each jurisdiction.
According to Ringling data, the Feld family owns 43 elephants, and 29 of the giant animals live at the company's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. The I-Team visited that site in 1995. Ringling is said to own the biggest herd of Asian elephants in North America.
Thirteen animals will continue to tour with the circus before retiring to the center by 2018.
The circus will continue to use other animals - that are likely to become the focus of animal rights activists once elephants have been put to pasture.
The Ringling circus owners have been fighting lawsuits since 2000. They have maintained that the "Greatest Show on Earth" symbol was the elephant and that they had no plans-or obligation-to change that. In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from a number of animal-rights groups-actions that brought to an end a 14-year legal battle over allegations that Ringling circus employees mistreated elephants.
Now though, what is coming to an end is the procession of pachyderms that has delighted audiences for decades...and aggrieved animal welfare advocates for just as long.