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Ringling Bros. Circus, 'The Greatest Show on Earth,' to Close After 146 Years

High operating costs, changing public tastes and battles with animal rights groups all contributed to what the owner called a very difficult decision.
Final Elephant Act for the RBBB Circus
After 150 years the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end. This photo shows the final show which featured elephants, the 5pm performance at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on May 1, 2016.Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post/Getty Images

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will stage the final performances of "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May, ending a 146-year run.

The announcement comes after the show saw a steep drop in ticket sales, after the circus' owners ended the use of live elephants in performances. The circus was involved in protracted legal battles with animal rights groups over the use of elephants in the show.

"Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop," Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment which owns the circus, said in a statement issued Saturday night.

"The competitor in many ways is time"

Animal rights groups welcomed the news of the circus' imminent end.

"Ringling Bros. has changed a great deal over a century and a half, but not fast enough," Humane Society of the United States President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said in a Facebook post.

He added: "It’s just not acceptable any longer to cart wild animals from city to city and have them perform silly yet coercive stunts. I know this is bittersweet for the Feld family, but I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts.”"

In a statement, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said it "heralds the end of what has been the saddest show on earth for wild animals, and asks all other animal circuses to follow suit, as this is a sign of changing times."

Though Feld told the Associated Press that there wasn’t one factor that spelled the end for the circus, he acknowledged that entertainment tastes have changed.

"The competitor in many ways is time," he told the agency, adding that many small children raised on modern entertainment found it difficult to sit still for the duration of the more than two-hour-long show.

Ringling Bros. has two touring circuses this season and will perform 30 shows between now and May. Major stops include Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Brooklyn. The final shows will be in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 7 and in Uniondale, New York, at the Nassau County Coliseum on May 21.

The two touring shows employ some 500 people, a small number of whom the company said will be found positions with the firm's other shows, which include Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live. Most, however, will be out of a job, the AP reported.

Image: A performer hangs upside down during a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance
A circus performer hangs upside down during a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performance in Washington, D.C., on March 19, 2015.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP - Getty Images

The company said that its animals — including lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas — will go to suitable homes. It added that it will continue to operate the Florida-based Center for Elephant Conservation, where it placed its elephants after phasing them out of the show in May 2016.

The elephants were both one of the circus' main attractions, and one of their biggest problems.

Feld Entertainment in 2014 won $25.2 million in settlements from several groups including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year fight over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants. The company had sued the organizations alleging malicious prosecution.

The company had pledged to end the use of elephants in their performances by 2018, but made the change earlier than promised.

Image: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus elephants perform
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus elephants perform during Barnum's FUNundrum in New York on March 26, 2010.EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP - Getty Images

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is not the only animal entertainment company to respond to audiences' increasing concerns about animal welfare. The SeaWorld theme parks last week hosted the final performance of their long-running orca show. The parks had seen tickets sales steadily decline, following negative publicity arising from the documentary "Blackfish," which portrayed the animals' treatment in captivity in a negative light.

Juliette Feld, Feld’s daughter and the chief operating officer of the company, told the AP that the elephants were key to attracting customers.

"We know now that one of the major reasons people came to Ringling Bros. was getting to see elephants," she said. "We stand by that decision. We know it was the right decision. This was what audiences wanted to see and it definitely played a major role."

Reaction to the circus' impending closure on social media was mixed, with many users expressing dismay at the closure of a show that has become something of an institution during the course of its run. They included former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Many others, however, saw the move as a positive step for animal welfare.