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With or without animals? Circus industry leaders weigh in on future of acts

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is planning a comeback without animals
Published: Oct. 30, 2021 at 9:15 PM CDT
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BARABOO, Wis. (WMTV) - The “Greatest Show on Earth” may be coming back, but some of its greatest show-stoppers will not.

After a shutdown in 2017, the company behind the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said officials are planning for the production’s return without animals.

The circus used animals over its 146-year history, according to Scott O’Donnell, director of Baraboo’s Circus World Museum.

“There’s no way that it could be the same,” he said on the forthcoming production. “But that’s not a negative point of view at all. The wonderful thing about the circus is the reinvention of itself, to really tell stories in dynamic ways, sometimes with animals, sometimes with not.”

Court battles with animal rights activists led to an end of elephant acts at Ringling Bros. in 2016. Curtains fell as parent company Feld Entertainment Inc. cited high operating costs and declining ticket sales.

“As they say, as we’ve always said in the American circus, the show must go on,” Johnathan Lee Iverson, the circus’s last ringmaster, told NBC15.

Iverson is now ringmaster at Omnium: A Bold New Circus, based in the Washington D.C. area. He had a 17-year tenure with the Ringling Bros.

“It’s always been a great day when we’ve had animals in the show,” Iverson said. “That’s me personally. I’m a traditionalist. I love seeing the glory of animals in the circuses. But if that’s not your thing, hey, there are other offerings out there for you.”

He shared how one company’s decision not to use animals will affect the industry: “The circus will do what it has always done, that is present a full palette of diverse offerings of what this extravaganza is.”

In Baraboo, plans are in place for next year’s Big Top Parade, which honors the city’s circus heritage. Circus World staff work with the local chamber of commerce to create the event, according to O’Donnell.

He said, “We’re committed to having animals here. It’s something that we look at every year to make sure that we can compassionately fulfill our obligation for the betterment and care of those animals that join us each summer here at Circus World.”

O’Donnell said elephants, in particular, were a crowd favorite. He did not say whether they will appear in June for the parade, which is also set to return after a two-year hiatus from the pandemic.

“It’s the number one thing that they ask for,” he said. “When they call, when they email, our comment cards, it’s not ‘Are you going to get rid of animals?’ It’s the reverse, [it’s] ‘Can you get more animals?’”

Looking forward, industry leaders say there is more than one way to entertain a crowd.

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