Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus hoped to appease animal rights activists when it stopped using elephants in its shows, but without elephants, the circus wasn't able to fill enough seats.
Family-owned Feld Entertainment, which said it's the world's largest producer of live family entertainment, announced in a statement that the decision last year to phase out elephants in its productions created "a decline in ticket sales greater than could have been anticipated." The elephants performed their last show on May 1, ahead of their expected 2018 retirement.
Ringling Brothers had a long history with elephants. In 1881, P.T. Barnum purchased the famous Jumbo, a male African bush elephant, for $10,000, now about $250,000.
The last Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey shows will be held in Providence, R.I., on May 7, followed by a May 21 performance in Uniondale, N.Y. The company's current roster of shows also includes Marvel Universe LIVE! and Disney on Ice.
The demise of Ringling Brothers is a major coup for animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which on Saturday touted 36 years of activism which "reduced attendance to the point of no return."
SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS - Get Report) is probably the most famous example of a company that's suffered from animal cruelty allegations. Shares of the theme park operator, backed by Blackstone (BX - Get Report) , have never recovered from the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which argued that orca captivity is inhumane and dangerous to the human trainers of the orcas. SeaWorld announced in March that it would phase out its orca captivity, breeding and live shows. The company's remaining whales, most of which were born in captivity, will live out their lives at the parks. The news sent SeaWorld shares soaring 9%, but continued attendance drops forced the company to slash its dividend and invest $175 million in new attractions.
"All other animal circuses, roadside zoos, and wild animal exhibitors," PETA said in its Saturday statement, "must take note: society has changed, eyes have been opened, people know now who these animals are, and we know it is wrong to capture and exploit them."
Editor's Pick: This article was originally published on Jan. 15.
Besides Ringling Brothers, PETA's statement singled out SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, which exhibits a single orca. In 2014, Palace Entertainment acquired the Seaquarium for undisclosed terms. Palace is owned by private equity-backed Spanish theme park operator Parques Reunidos, which went public in Madrid last year.
Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian circus company which does not use animals, was sold in 2015 to a consortium led by private equity giant TPG Capital for $1.5 billion. And Disney (DIS - Get Report) , which relies on its media empire rather than animal shows to attract visitors to its theme parks, generated revenues of $17 billion in its Parks and Resorts business in its 2016 fiscal year, up 5% year-over-year, and operating income of $3.3 billion, a 9% increase over the same period. The division accounted for over 30% of Disney's revenue for the fiscal year, which ended Oct. 1.
As for Ringling Brothers, the troubles for the company have been a long time in the making.
In late 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that Feld Entertainment, the circuses parent, had agreed to a $270,000 fine for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act, a 1966 law which includes animal exhibitions under its purview. The USDA said in a statement that the fine was "the largest assessed against an exhibitor under the AWA."
Feld, which denied any wrongdoing in its settlement, had previously faced a USDA investigation after Roy Horn, of the Feld-produced Siegfried & Roy tiger entertainment show, was mauled by a tiger.
The Feld family paid $8 million for Ringling Brothers in 1967, taking it public in 1969. Mattel (MAT - Get Report) paid $50 million for the circus two years later, while the Feld family continued to operate the circus and eventually repurchased it for about $23 million in 1982.
The toymaker still does business with Feld. In 2013, for example, the two companies announced a five-year extension of their licensing agreements between Mattel's Hot Wheels toy cars and Feld's Monster Jam motor sports show.
Ringling Brothers rival Big Apple Circus, a nonprofit which stopped using elephants in 2000, filed for bankruptcy late last year. TheStreet sister site The Deal reported that the company had hoped to emerge from Chapter 11 as an operating circus company but ultimately decided to shutter the business and sell assets.