The iconic and controversy-laden elephants of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will take to the ring for the last time on Sunday, ending a 145-year long tradition that began at “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
The last show featuring the two touring elephant groups will take place at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center at 7:30 p.m. ET in Providence, Rhode Island.
The removal of the elephants from the performance means early retirement for the circus' 11 remaining Asian elephants that range in age from 6-year-old April to 48-year-old Asia.
Together, the traveling troupes — five elephants in one, six in the other — performed 1,000 shows a year in 80 cities, according to WCNC.
Their last act follow decades of protests by animal rights activists who say the methods used to train and house the elephants are cruel.
Ringling livestreamed the final performance on Facebook Live and Ringling.com.
"There’s going to be a lot of emotion around the performances, a lot of people coming to see the elephants for the last time and certainly for our performers and everyone traveling with them it’s a big change," said Alana Feld, Ringling's executive vice president and show producer.
The animals are reportedly going to be taken to Ringling's 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, where they will join 29 other elephants. The Asian elephant herd will be the largest of its kind in the in the Western Hemisphere.
"It’s the end of a long era and it’s an overdue policy," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, WCNC reported.
Ringling had planned to phase out its elephants by 2018, but in January it sped up the process as the company finished necessary preparations to move the animals.
The use of bullhooks, which is a long stick with a sharp metal hook, in the elephants' training and handling, along with chains and other methods of controlling the animals, had come under fire by animal rights activists. Ringling has always maintained that those practices are humane.
"There’s a lot of critics out there, but the bullhook is the most humane and the USDA-approved tool to work with animals," Feld told WCNC. "We believe it’s necessary in working with them and interacting with them."
Some have said the circus should remove all animals from its acts, including lions and tigers.
"Taking elephants out of the shows is only the first step," Rachel Mathews, PETA Foundation Capital Animal Law Enforcement counsel, said to WCNC. "Ringling must now put an end to all of the abuse on the big top. Elephants don’t want to stand on their heads (and) tigers don’t want to jump through hoops."
Ringling will continue to put on shows and recently announced its next production called “Out of This World” will kick off in California in July.