Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey rolls into the PNC Arena this week, but the circus’ annual winter show is different this year. Sure, it’s the new extreme sports edition, which incorporates BMX, trampolines and a Ukrainian slackline and parkour troupe along with the more traditional high wire act, human cannonball, and parade of talented tigers, camels and dogs. But it’s also the final bow for the Asian elephants.
Ringling Bros. announced in January that it would retire its elephants to its Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida in May, almost two years earlier than previously announced. There will also be no elephant walk this year.
What prompted Feld Entertainment – the circus’ parent company – to move up the date may come as a surprise.
“We’ll be phasing out the elephants sooner than expected,” says assistant animal superintendent Ryan Henning. “The transition is taking place so we can focus on conservation and cancer research.”
Feld announced in October that it will partner with Salt Lake City’s Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital and Dr. Joshua Schiffman, whose recent research into why elephants rarely develop cancer found that elephant blood cells experience cell death more rapidly than human blood. .
The research requires regular blood draws from the animals.
“I’m the individual who does the blood draws. It’s a simple process. I use a little butterfly needle and we hold out their ears and draw blood directly from the vein. We’re working closely with Dr. Schiffman. They are trying to prove that elephants are key links. The research is incredible,” says Henning.
Schiffman’s team is now exploring how to apply the research to children and families who may be high risk for cancer.
“We have the ability. We can do it through the relationship and trust (the elephants) have with us. The results could be astronomical,” Henning explains. “It helps having such a large, diverse herd of 40 elephants. Nobody else can do that. No one else has a herd of 40 elephants. Testing allows this research to take off.”
Henning grew up in Baraboo, Wis. – the birthplace of Barnum & Bailey – watching videos and looking at posters at his uncle’s circus museum that featured some of the elephants he’d eventually work with. He hasn’t decided what the elephants’ retirement means for his job, since he works with all the animals, or to animal rights’ groups that have long called for the retirement of circus animals.
“We’re going to continue to have a large variety of domestic animals on the show and add more animals in the future,” he says.
With Circus Xtreme touting athletes that could certainly appear on ESPN, “Ninja Warrior” or “Cirque du Soliel,” it’s possible the elephants’ retirement signals more focus on acrobatics and stunts than animal acts.
“It’s pretty crazy. I watch it through rehearsals. I still sneak and watch different parts of the show,” Henning said of the human cannonball flying at 60 miles per hour, parkour guys who move like flying squirrels, and performers bouncing off trampolines in and out of windows. “It’s (still) for children of all ages. It’s up to date. it’s modern.”