Zach Groff

Published on:

January 16, 2017

The Greatest Show On Earth Is The Animal Rights Movement’s First Abolition, But Not Its Last

The Greatest Show On Earth's Demise Is The Beginning of Total Animal Liberation

By Tiffany Walker

 Elephants escape from circuses and express their anxiety.
Elephants escape from circuses and express their anxiety.

Saturday night, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that the famous circus is shutting down for good - a sweeping victory for the area of the animal rights movement probably most known for protests. For arguably the first time in history, the animal rights movement in the U.S. has nearly abolished an entire industry, ending Ringling’s 100 years of traversing North America bringing wonder, amazement and unimaginable cruelty for the wild animals they tortured into submission. The announcement is a sign of the times - of the changes that happen in a country where 32% of people support equal rights for animals. The announcement is also a symbol of the power of nonviolent protest, as decades of picketers outside what was formerly seen as wholesome entertainment became a symbol of animal cruelty. It is a protest movement (coupled with the typical accompaniments of protest, such as lawsuits) that has brought the animal rights movement one of its biggest steps toward abolition. Those who protested - from PETA to Last Chance for Animals to grassroots communities like my own DxE chapter in Connecticut - tore down a violent behemoth.

For over a century, Ringling has kept children begging their parents to spend their money on the circus. I used to be one of those children, especially since the circus always came to town around my birthday. I was enamored by the elephants, lions, tigers and monkeys that the human performers would parade around the arena cloaked in greatness and pride. In my eyes, it was “The Greatest Show on Earth” - for humans.

Over the last few years Ringling Brothers’ veneer of wholesomeness has faded away under the pall of constant protests.  Time and again, animal rights groups went after the circus, and even the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) went after Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Brothers. Alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act cost the company $270,000 in 2011, cementing the circus’s identity as an animal abuser in the public eye. Protests from animal rights activists became commonplace at every show around the United States. The uproar culminated - or at least, it seemed like a culmination - in Ringling’s pledge to retire all the elephants, with the last performance taking place in May 2016.

Thanks to years of consolidation in the circus industry, Ringling’s demise sounds a near death knell for the animal-abusing portion of industry.  Not only has Ringling spent the last 146 years putting on shows, they have also spent that time becoming the dominating force of the circus industry by acquiring smaller circuses and ensuring their status as the only choice. Protests, lawsuits and public opinion affected their bottom lines to the point where removing the controversial elephant shows did nothing to boost them financially as attendance continued to drop.

Consumers fled the circus and the circus was increasingly beleaguered because of the powerful moral case that activists outside circuses across America forced circus-goers to confront. Animal rights activists inserted morality and ethics into the circus. The general public agreed and after a long struggle, we won the fight.


Want to get involved? DxE is a grassroots network focused on empowering you to be the best activist you can be. Here are some steps you can take. 

  1. Sign up to our mailing list and share our content on social media. 
  2. Join a local DxE community (or, better yet, come visit us in Berkeley).
  3. Take the Liberation Pledge. And join us in building a true social movement for animals.