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Ringling circus to close after 146-year run

Alexander Lacey, animal trainer for the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus in Washington on March 31, 2017. (New York Times photos)

It began in 1871 as PT Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome. It survived the Depression, two world wars and the new media of its time. But on May 21, the world’s most historic circus, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, will shut down after failing to sufficiently dazzle the children of the smartphone age and to overcome the fierce opposition of the animal rights movement.

The frenzied spectacle of today is still rooted in its 19th-century traditions, with a dash of the modern mixed in. Clowns flop. Trapezists fly. Wild animals jump. Contortionists bend. Horses gallop. Tightrope walkers wobble.

But ticket sales, which had been declining for a decade, plummeted last year when the elephants left the ring for the last time. Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling, spent years battling animal rights groups and accusations of elephant abuse. The circus never lost in court; it won a total of US$25 million in two settlements from two major animal rights groups and beat back allegations that it had mistreated elephants with chains and bullhooks. 

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