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The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is stamping out its famous elephant acts.
Feld Entertainment, the company that owns the circus, said Thursday that it will phase out the 13 elephants from its traveling circus performances. By 2018, the popular pachyderms will be relocated to a conservation center in central Florida, where they will join the rest of the Ringling Bros. herd of more than 40 elephants. It will take "months" to renovate the facility and make more room for the animals, a spokesman told NBC News.
The end of the circus' century-old tradition also comes after years of animal rights groups putting pressure on the show.
"This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995," Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld said in a statement, adding that its focus will be saving the Asian elephant, which is listed as endangered by wildlife conservation groups.
The Ringling Bros. Center is home to a breeding program that has seen 26 elephant births, the company said. Feld owns the largest herd of Asian elephants in North America, according to The Associated Press, which originally reported news of the decision.
The company said it has placed elephants at eight zoos and is continuing to support the Smithsonian Institution's research to find a cure for diseases affecting juvenile elephants.
"This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers," Feld added.
He told the AP that the decision was also spurred by counties and municipalities passing "anti-circus" and "anti-elephant" ordinances, and it has been costly to fight such legislation.
Animal rights groups have also waged lawsuits against Feld Entertainment alleging the mistreatment of elephants. The company, however, has won millions in settlements over the unproven claims.
The Humane Society of the United States, which was among the animal rights groups battling Ringling Bros., called the surprise move "startling and tremendously exciting."
"We’ve said all along that the public won’t tolerate the abuse of elephants with sharp bullhooks to get them to perform tricks or the constant chaining of these highly intelligent and mobile animals," Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said in a statement. "There are better forms of entertainment that don’t harm animals."
The Feld family said they would continue to "preserve the esteemed traditions" of its 145-year-old three-ring circus — dubbed "The Greatest Show on Earth" — with the use of tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels.
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