Ringling Brothers to retire elephants

Elephants soon will no longer star in "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus, whose treatment of endagered Asian elephants has been the target of protests and investigations by animal welfare groups, said after 145 years it would phase out elephants by 2018 and focus on  their conservation.

"There's been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers," Alana Feld, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment, the circus' parent company, told the Associated Press. "A lot of people aren't comfortable with us touring with our elephants."

Company President Kenneth Feld told the wire service the move also was prompted in part because municipalities have passed "anti-circus" and "anti-elephant" ordinances, making it costly to fight and difficult to plan tours .

Under the plan, 13 elephants currently traveling with the three circus units will be relocated to the circus's 200-acre conservation center in Florida where they will join the herd of more than 40 elephants, the company said in a press release.

The circus will continue to feature other performing animals including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels, it said.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said he was stunned by the news, calling it in his blog, a "Berlin Wall moment" for animal protection.

He wrote the Feld company fought animal welfare groups at every turn to keep elephants in its acts, making the announcement that much more of a blockbuster.

"...kudos to their leaders for recognizing that as the world changes, they can embrace that new world, instead of fighting it forever," Pacelle wrote.

Pacelle in an email called the news "startling and tremendously exciting."

"With consumers now so alert to animals welfre issue, no business involved in any overt form of animal exploitation can survive in the long run," he said. "The troubles that SeaWorld has had in the wake of the reaction to the documentary Blackfish have been a harbinger of things to come for Ringling and other businesses using wild animals for entertainment."

Last year, Feld Entertainment won a $25.2 million settlement with several animal-rights groups, including the HSUS and the ASPCA, over unproven allegations that elephants were mistreated by circus employees.