Before the circus elephants lumber into the sunset, audiences have a few more days to see them under the big top (or at least the arena roof).
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has brought the “Greatest Show on Earth” to AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami for its annual January run. For the elephants, it’s their final time in the spotlight.
Once billed as “the biggest brute you’ll ever see,” elephants have been part of the Ringling circus for 143 years.
On Wednesday, the circus rehearsed its acts for the media. Four elephants nibbled on hay as their trainer stood watch. After May 1, all the Ringling circus elephants will be retired to a Florida conservation center.
For years, animal-rights groups have focused on their treatment and training, especially the use of bullhooks, and have called for the end of their appearances.
Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, said Wednesday that the move comes as cities pass laws restricting circus animals on tour.
“We’re an entertainment company, not in the business of fighting legislation,” he said. “It was becoming impractical for us to tour with the elephants in some markets, like Los Angeles. We couldn’t leave the elephants at the city’s limits.”
The circus will evolve, like it always has, Payne said.
“We don’t see it as a loss to the show. The Ringling Bros. evolves over time — that’s how it’s survived,” he said. “The producers are looking at which areas will change. We’ll miss the elephants, but this is a change we know it was time to make. There’ll be plenty of other reasons people will want to come to the show.”
Miami audiences still have time to catch the five Asian elephants on the “Xtreme” tour through Jan. 18.
The five elephants — plus six others currently on another tour — will bring a total of 40 elephants to the center.
Circus Xtreme — launched in January 2015 — contains a “constant element of surprise” and mixes the traditional clowns, acrobats and dancers with BMX cycling, a human cannon shot across the arena, and an elevated 16-foot steel globe that a motorcyclist speeds around in.
“We're keeping up with the times, doing things that people have never done before," said David Shipman, the circus' ringmaster. "We have a human cannonball that launches across the arena in 2.2 seconds. We have BMX bikers, parkour flippers, trampoline jumpers."
And beyond this year, other animals will still play a starring role.
“We’ll still have a large variety of wild [and] domestic animals in the show traveling with us,” said Ryan Henning, an assistant animal superintendent who has been with the circus for 12 years. “We’ll have camels, alpacas, horses, tigers and lions — we don’t want to give it all away right now. I think people will still appreciate the show.”
The circus decided to hasten the retirement of its elephants after first announcing the end of their shows by 2018. Payne said the date was pushed up because the conservation center will be able to house all the elephants.
The circus spends more than $6 million a year to care for the elephants, ages 5 to 48. Payne said some of the funds will now go to fund pediatric cancer research at the conservation center.
Said Henning: “These elephants are living happier, longer, healthier lives in captivity.”
If you go
What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Xtreme.
When: Through Jan. 18.
Where: AmericaAirlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.