Following a famed 145-year run, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey elephants have bid their final adieu to the big top. The last of the circus’ performing elephants took their final bow Sunday night in Providence, Rhode Island, and are now heading into retirement at the company’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.
The goodbye comes early for the beloved elephants, who were initially slated to retire by 2018. It also closes a controversial chapter for Ringling: Animal rights groups frequently criticize the company for its treatment of animals, and PETA is insistent that removing the elephants from the shows isn’t enough. On Sunday, activists showed up for a final elephant protest, urging the company to end all of its animal acts.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture penalized Ringling owners Feld Entertainment for allegedly violating the Animal Welfare Act. Feld did not admit wrongdoing, but they did pay the $270,000 penalty and promised to implement new training for all personnel who handle animals.
The push to remove animals from the circus shows comes on the heels of several calls to end animal captivity. In March, SeaWorld announced they would stop breeding killer whales and end all orca shows by the end of the decade, though the remaining animals would spend the rest of their lives in captivity.
Ringling has not revealed any plans to stop other performances starring animals, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs, and camels. The elephants will now live on the conservation’s 200-acre preserve, where they will take part in innovative cancer research.