Elephants perform for final time at Ringling Bros circus
Elephants with the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus have performed for last time after decades of criticism from animal rights activists.
"This is a very emotional time for us," ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson told the crowd as the circus's performance came to an end in Providence, Rhode Island, on Sunday.
He called the six Asian elephants beloved members of the circus family and thanked the animals for more than 100 years of service.
"We love our girls. Thank you so much for so many years of joy," he said as the elephants left the ring for a final time. "That's history tonight there, ladies and gentlemen, true American icons."
Earlier, the crowd watched as the elephants performed an act that had them dancing, balancing on each others' backs, sitting on their hind legs and pretending to sleep.
"We came to say farewell to the elephants," said Sheila Oliver, of East Providence, who brought her four-year-old daughter, Lilliana. "This is her first circus and, unfortunately, it's their last one."
Five elephants also performed earlier on Sunday in a Ringling Bros show in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
The Providence show opened with the US national anthem. An elephant carried a performer holding an American flag then stood at attention as the song ended. A few minutes later, six elephants entered the ring, each holding the tail of the one in front of her.
The animals will live at Ringling's Centre for Elephant Conservation in Florida, said Alana Feld, executive vice president of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus.
Its herd of 40 Asian elephants, the largest in North America, will continue a breeding programme and be used in a paediatric cancer research project.
Elephants have been used in the circus in America for more than 200 years. In the early 1800s, Hackaliah Bailey added the elephant Old Bet to his circus. PT Barnum added the African elephant he named Jumbo to The Greatest Show On Earth in 1882.
The Humane Society of the United States says more than a dozen circuses in the US continue to use elephants. But none tour as widely or are as well-known as Ringling Bros.
It is becoming more difficult for circuses to tour with elephants. Dozens of cities have banned the use of bullhooks - used to train elephants - and other states are considering such legislation.
Just as in the Disney movie Dumbo, elephants in the past have been dressed up as people and trained to do a range of tricks like play baseball, ride bicycles, play musical instruments or wear wedding dresses.
Last month, Sea World announced it would end live orca shows and breeding.
Ms Feld said Ringling will continue to use animals. Sunday's show included horses, lions, tigers, dogs and pigs.
Protesters demonstrating against Ringling's use of animals stood outside during Sunday's show.
The Humane Society has called for an end to the breeding programme at Ringling's Florida centre, and for the company to retire its elephants to one of two accredited sanctuaries, one in California and one in Tennessee, both of which have more than 2,000 acres of land.
Ms Feld said they have the most successful breeding programme in North America and have determined they can accommodate the elephants in the space they have.
In 2014, Feld Entertainment won more than 25 million US dollars in settlements from animal rights groups, including the Humane Society, over unproven allegations of mistreated elephants.
An announcer told the crowd before Sunday's performance about the cancer project. Cancer is less common in elephants than humans, and their cells contain 20 copies of a major cancer-suppressing gene, compared with just one copy in humans. A researcher at the University of Utah is working with Ringling to study the elephants' blood cells.