ELLENTON -- Just more than a week after the original announcement, representatives for parent company Feld Entertainment maintain the decision to eliminate the elephant show from Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus was not a decision based on animal cruelty concerns, but one based on restrictive policies around the United States.
"A patchwork quilt of unnecessary regulations has cropped up across the country, and as we said in our original announcement, we're in the live family entertainment business," Stephen Payne, spokesman for Feld Entertainment, said Tuesday morning after Gov. Rick Scott's visit
to company headquarters. "We're not in the business of fighting city hall."
Payne said Ringling is much more concerned with the welfare of animals than groups that have criticized them over the program, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Payne said they spend about $65,000 per elephant for their 29 elephants, 13 of which are used in shows, and 26 of which were bred by Ringling Bros.
"A lot of these organizations that make claims about our mistreatment are doing it to advance their own philosophy and, in a lot of cases, raise money," Payne said. "Really, all of this is just about them making money by making statements about Ringling Bros., while we're in the business of actually caring for these animals. Whereas a lot of these groups that make those claims don't care for animals at all."
Brittany Peet, the deputy director of active animal law enforcement at PETA, called those assertions "absurd."
"They've made millions on the backs of abused animals, while people like us work tirelessly for small salaries to advocate for animals," Peet said. "It'd be laughable if it wasn't so tragic."
Payne maintains Ringling Bros. treat their elephants completely humanely and the decision -- made after nine months of family discussions -- to phase that performance out by 2018 was one only made due to legislative landscapes in cities such as Los Angeles and Oakland. The one tool they use for training, called a bull hook or a guide, is approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Payne said.
Peet said the bull hooks, which resemble a metal fire poker, are not a humane training tool.
"They are used to inflict pain and instill fear of pain on elephants," Peet said. "Trainers beat elephants with these bull hooks on the most sensitive parts of their bodies, and they purposely do it in areas that audiences won't see."
The 13 elephants currently part of the circus will all be at the company's Center of Elephant Conservation in central Florida by the end of 2018, Payne said, and will remain there with the 16 elephants that already permanently live on the 200 acres.
The decision to phase out gradually was based on the need to plan for 13 additional animals that weigh about 8,000 pounds apiece, Payne said.
"We needed to see if we needed to build new barns, do we need more staffing, do we have enough water, all of these things we're taking into consideration," Payne said. "Because the decisions that are made today will impact these animals for decades to come."
Though Payne said their customer service department had received calls and emails expressing disappointment, many customers understood the decision and the company did not believe business would suffer. Payne didn't offer specifics, but said they had new acts in the works to replace the elephants.
Payne repeatedly called laws banning the use of elephants in shows "unnecessary," and criticized groups that call for greater regulation on animal acts.
"Some people demonize some elephant husbandry tools that we use, but again, the reason goes back towards a greater animals rights agenda," Payne said. "Those people don't want animals in the circus, they don't want pets, they want to make decisions on what people wear, what they eat, how they spend their money on animal entertainment."
Kate Irby, online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055.