Dr. Dennis Schmitt, chair of Veterinary Services and Director of Research in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animal stewardship department, pictured with an elephant. Photo courtesy Feld Entertainment.

Dr. Dennis Schmitt, chair of Veterinary Services and Director of Research in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animal stewardship department, pictured with an elephant. Photo courtesy Feld Entertainment, Inc.

One of the world’s best-known animal advocates, retired TV game show host Bob Barker, said Thursday he’s overjoyed that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be removing elephants from its performances, but said he was concerned the animals could wind up in a glorified zoo.

“It’s wonderful news in that these elephants are not going to be traveling now,” the former host of “The Price is Right” told City News Service, lamenting the “miserable train cars” used to transport the animals across the country.

“They suffer horrendously in just the travel,” Barker said. “An elephant’s life in the circus — it was one of constant mistreatment, constant beatings, constant travel — not anything that resembles the life nature intended for an elephant. … The best day in the life of a circus elephant is the day he dies. It’s his only escape.”

The circus’ parent company, Florida-based Feld Entertainment, announced today it would remove Asian elephants from its traveling performances by 2018. The circus’ 13 elephants will be relocated to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, joining a herd of more than 40 other pachyderms.

“This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment. “When we did so, we knew we would play a critical role in saving the endangered Asian elephant for future generations, given how few Asian elephants are left in the wild.

“Since then, we have had 26 elephant births. No other institution has done or is doing more to save this species from extinction, and that is something of which I and my family are extremely proud,” he said. “This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers.”

The end of elephant performances in the circus will end a long-standing Los Angeles tradition, the elephant walk from a downtown train stop to the corrals where they are held when the circus takes up residency at Staples Center.

Barker, 91, said excitement over the circus’ announcement is tempered by concern about the elephants’ future, and how they will be treated at the “ranch-like property” in Florida. He said that according to the circus, the conservation center will be open to researchers and scientists studying the animals, but could eventually expand to allow public access, meaning “elephants are going to be doing their tricks and being mistreated to entertain the public.”

He also questioned the three-year delay in ending elephant performances.

“I don’t see why they don’t stop tomorrow,” he told CNS. “They want to make the last possible dollar out of these poor creatures.”

Officials from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also criticized the three-year delay. PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said “many of the elephants are painfully arthritic, and many have tuberculosis, so their retirement day needs to come now.”

“Three years is too long for a mother elephant separated from her calf, too long for a baby elephant beaten with the sharp fireplace-poker-like weapons called bullhooks that Ringling handlers use routinely, too long for an animal who roams up to 30 miles a day in the wild to be kept in shackles,” she said. “If the decision is serious, then the circus needs to do it now.”

Barker said circus officials don’t want to give credit for their decision to animal-rights activists who have long criticized the organization for its treatment of elements.

“I don’t think it ever would have happened if it hadn’t been for the activists,” he said.

The mistreatment of elephants and other circus animals has also been censured in local government.

Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance April 2014 to make it illegal in the city to use bullhooks, baseball bats, ax handles, pitchforks and other similar tools to cause pain in elephants. The goads — or instruments made to look like bullhooks — also cannot be shown or brandished “for the purpose of training or controlling the behavior of the elephant.” The ordinance will take effect in January 2017.

West Hollywood City Council approved an ordinance in 2013 banning circus acts, carnival performances, trade shows and parades involving animals and events requiring wild animals to do tricks, fight or perform “for the entertainment, amusement or benefit of an audience.”

Other animals, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels, will remain in the traveling circus’ performances.

“As the circus evolves, we can maintain our focus on elephant conservation while allowing our business to continue to meet shifting consumer preferences,” said Nicole Feld and Alana Feld, Ringling Bros. producers and Executive Vice Presidents with Feld Entertainment.

— Staff and wire reports

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