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Ringling Bros. packing its elephants' trunks, conceiving circus without pachyderms

What's the Ringling Bros. Circus without elephants? We'll soon find out.

Six-year-old Cristin Sitoski is crazy about the circus. And the best thing about it?

"I love when the elephant comes out and the lady rides on them," she says with barely a moment's hesitation. "I really like them."

For well over a century, elephants have been a major attraction of the big top — lumbering beasts whose good nature and surprising nimbleness, not to mention those way-cool trunks, thrill young and old alike. But that tradition's about to end.

Bowing to increasingly widespread and unfriendly legislation in other jurisdictions, as well as opposition from animal-rights groups, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the much-ballyhooed "Greatest Show on Earth," is retiring its elephant acts. Following the circus' 12-day run at the Royal Farms Arena, which begins Wednesday and runs through March 27, the circus elephants will be leaving Baltimore for good. Come May, the elephants will be taken off the road and sent to a Ringling-run conservation center in Florida.

"I don't think it's fair at all," says Cristin's mother, Irene Sitoski, 36, a children's entertainer living in Pasadena. "I think maybe it is kind of unfortunate that they have made that decision."

It was not one arrived at lightly, says Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros. "This has been a bittersweet decision. Everyone considers the elephants a part of the greater circus family — and they'll continue to be. They just won't be on tour with the circus."

Payne says the continuing opposition of animal-rights groups, especially People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, had no direct bearing on the decision. Rather, he says, the spread of legislation, which prohibited certain training methods or was otherwise targeted at elephants, forced the circus' hand.

"We're an entertainment company, first and foremost," Payne says. "We're not generally in the business of fighting City Hall."

For its part, officials at PETA, which has long maintained that the circus mistreats its elephants, minimize the decision to take them off the road as a worthy half-step, at best.

"The circus' announcement is long overdue," says Rachel Mathews, counsel for PETA's captive animal law enforcement division. "While relief from the demands and physical stress of circus life is going to be a positive change for the elephants, they're going to be moved to Ringling's breeding farm in Florida, where the elephants are chained on a daily basis. … It's really far from retirement."

Sending the touring Asian elephants to the Florida facility will increase the size of the herd there to 41, says Ryan Henning, assistant animal superintendent and assistant elephant manager for Ringling Bros. There, the focus will be on conservation, breeding and — because elephants have proved amazingly resistant to cancer — medical research, he says.

"We'll have the best individuals caring for them in Florida," Henning says. "Obviously, they won't be traveling, but there will still be a lot of human interactions with the animals. They were all born and raised in captivity; they've been around people their entire lives They're going to be exercised and cared for and have that social structure among one another."

That's not good enough for PETA, which says the elephants deserve a life far removed from what describes as the restrictive environment that will continue at the Florida facility. The organization supports sending them instead to one of two U.S. facilities accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, Mathews says, which "offer elephants vast areas to roam. …They're just allowed to be elephants."

Removing pachyderms from the big top is clearly a major move for Ringling Bros. Elephants have been a defining part of the circus tradition for some 200 years. Old Bet, generally regarded as the first American circus elephant, begins showing up in newspaper accounts in the early 1800s. In the 1880s, P.T. Barnum made headlines and caused a national sensation when he brought the elephant Jumbo to these shores from Europe.

But circus elephants and tragedy have long traveled hand-in-hand. Old Bet was shot and killed by an irate Maine farmer in 1816. Jumbo was killed in a train collision in 1885; his bones were long displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The modern circus is all about spectacle, says Janet M. Davis, associate professor of American studies,history and women's and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin, whose books include "The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top'" and the soon-to-be-published "The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America." Nothing says spectacle, she says, like an elephant.

"They're majestic creatures," she says. "They're charismatic — if there's ever a charismatic animal, it's the elephant."

Even with all the controversy, elephants and the circus remain inextricably linked in the minds of many. Other circuses continue to feature elephants, including Oklahoma-based Carson & Barnes and the UniverSoul Circus, which will be coming to the Baltimore area in June, setting up its big tent outside Security Square Mall.

"Most people in my generation and younger, what we know about elephants is from the circus and the zoo," says John Rommel, 56, an engineering manager living in Timonium who plans to take his 5-year-old granddaughter, Audrey, to her first circus next week. A big top without pachyderms "will definitely be lesser of a circus," he says. "They've always been one of the highlights."

Feld's Payne says the circus has new plans for its show, ones that will replace some of the excitement the elephants generate. He declines to talk about specifics but says he is "very confident that the people are still going to find lots of reasons to come see Ringling Bros. when we come to town."

After all, he notes, the circus has been around a long time. "There's a lot of creativity there," he says.

Davis, for one, agrees. The circus, she says, is a cultural force that can weather the loss of one element, even so giant an element as its elephants. Other circuses, including Cirque du Soleil, have prospered without elephants, or any animals.

"One of the fascinating things for me as a historian is to see, over the centuries, just how flexible the circus has been as an institution," she says. "It is constantly reinventing itself and will continue to do so long after the elephants have been retired."

Besides, notes Payne, it's only the elephants that are being retired. The big cats — lions and tigers — remain, as well as dogs, camels, horses, even a kangaroo. "It will not impact any of the other animal acts that we currently have as part of the circus," he says.

That's just what bothers PETA, says Mathews. "We are working for a day when there are no animals that are used in circuses," she says. "Until the last animal is taken out of the circus, PETA will continue to protest, document, investigate and educate the public about the abuse of animals in the circus."

Irene Sitoski says she finds no comfort in such a pledge. She's seen people working with animals at events like the annual Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville, and says she doesn't believe they are mistreated. "These animals are their families," she says.

"What are they going to get rid of next?" she asks. "Are they going to get rid of the tigers? … I would probably cry."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

twitter.com: chriskaltsun

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