In a historic and unexpected decision that will end a tradition that dates back to 1882, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus vows to retire elephants from performances.
Last week's announcement regarding "The Greatest Show on Earth" comes as public acceptance wanes and pressure mounts to pull the curtain on elephant exploitation.
Palmetto-based Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the renowned circus, came to the decision after years of family discussions, decades of lawsuits by animal welfare organizations and new local government ordinances that either ban bull-hooks or public performances with exotic creatures.
The time arrived for this welcome action by Feld.
The giant entertainment company will retire the remaining 13 pachyderms performing in the traveling circuses by 2018, and they will join the 29 other elephants now living at Feld's Center for Elephant Conservation.
While some critics call for an immediate retirement plan, the company's 200-acre central Florida facility requires time for renovations to accommodate additional elephants.
Lawsuits that alleged animal cruelty -- primarily by using bull-hooks to train and control elephants -- ultimately failed.
Then the opposite occurred in 2014. The company won $25.2 million in settlements from such organizations as the Humane Society of the United States.
That ended a 14-year legal tussle over accusations of elephant mistreatment, handing Feld Entertainment a huge victory.
Kenneth Feld, the family-owned and -operated company's chief executive and chairman, told the Associated Press during last week's revelation that animal rights activists did not compel the retirement decision.
Numerous cities and counties, though, have adopted anti-circus and anti-elephant ordinances that impede the company's three traveling circuses, and legal challenges are expensive, he admitted. Retiring the animals will end those battles.
"There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," Alana Feld, executive vice president, remarked.
That change of heart extends to zoos as well. Some zoos in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and elsewhere have shuttered pachyderm exhibits. Highly social, intelligent and family-oriented creatures, elephants are wanderers who are inhibited by captivity.
While the best solution is letting elephants live in the wild, that poses deadly risks. Prized for their ivory in some Asian countries, poachers continue to kill thousands of elephants for their tusks. Until governments unite in a battle to end the ivory trade, this will be an ongoing threat to the animals.
Feld harbors the largest and only sustainable herd of Asian elephants in the northern hemisphere, the Herald reported last May. The Center for Elephant Conservation, in Polk County, has witnessed more than two dozen pachyderm births.
With some 200 acres, the center contains lots of room for elephants to roam and, we hope, thrive as if in the wild -- but without the threat of poaching.
To the company's credit, Feld invests significant resources into their care, about $65,000 annually for each animal.
The elephant is the most iconic image of a circus, and some circus aficionados will no doubt miss their mere presence.
The Feld family is to be commended for making the right decision and retiring the majestic creatures.