Under pressure from animal rights activists and changing city ordinances around the county, the Ringling Brothers are retiring elephants from performing in the circus.
“It’s hard not to tear up about it, because it’s such a tradition, them being out here,” said Ringling Brothers & Barnum Bailey Circus Senior Elephant Handler Joey Frisco.
Like his grandfather, and father before him, Frisco trains elephants.
One elephant, 50-year-old Karen, can whistle with her trunk.
“They all have very good mannerisms, they have all have a very good personality. It’s just that everybody’s different. Same with people,” he said.
But in the next couple of years, Frisco’s life’s work will drastically change.
“It is going to be difficult, but it’s just another chapter,” he said.
That next chapter will involve relocating the elephants to the Ringling Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County.
PETA tells us conditions at the center are nearly as bad as they are on the road.
And Florida Voices for Animals also has serious concerns about how they’ll be treated and used for breeding and research.
“Ringing has a history of painting a rosier picture on what’s really going on behind the scenes,” said Jessica Young of Florida Voices for Animals.
Ringling said the elephants are accustomed to the kind of routine they’ll have at the center, and the restrictions allow the staff to tend to their health needs and contribute to cancer research.
Meanwhile, protestors say phasing the elephants out of the circus is a step in the right direction, but it’s not happening soon enough.
“It’s really interesting to see people when they come out of the circus, because there is a lot of sadness that they can see in the animals' eyes and demeanor. It can be quite a depressing place to be when you get inside the building,” said Young.
Frisco said those who believe elephants are mistreated need to come and see for themselves. The holding area is open to the public before every show.
“This is American, everybody has a problem with something. It’s fine. The bottom line is the public knows what we do is right with the elephants. That’s the most important part,” he said.
Other animals will continue performing in the circus.
There is talk to open the Center for Elephant Conservation to the public in the future.
For show information and tickets, visit https://www.ringling.com/tickets-schedules/.