Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation

In this Jan. 3, 2015 photo provided by Feld Entertainment Inc., elephants perform at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said it will phase out its iconic elephant acts by 2018. (AP Photo/Feld Entertainment Inc., Gary Bogdon)

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced Thursday that it will phase out elephants from its performances by 2018, a decision that comes as the circus faces public scrutiny in Richmond and elsewhere about how the animals are treated.

Since October, the Richmond City Council has been weighing a ban on the bullhook, a tool used in elephant acts, but it was not clear how Thursday’s announcement might affect the legislation.

Councilman Parker C. Agelasto, a patron of the proposed bullhook ban, said council members were discussing how to respond to the circus’s decision, but his preference would be to press forward with the legislation because without it, other circuses still could use elephant bullhooks during performances here.

Executives from Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company, said the decision to end the circus’s century-old tradition of showcasing elephants was difficult and debated at length. Elephants have been featured on Ringling’s posters over the decades.

“There’s been somewhat of a mood shift among our consumers,” Alana Feld, the company’s executive vice president, told The Associated Press. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable with us touring with our elephants.”

Richmond’s bullhook ban, which would not take effect until 2017, is on the council’s agenda for a meeting Monday, but it’s likely to be continued as officials hash out the issue. The Ringling Bros. circus also will be in Richmond next week.

Animal rights groups, including the Richmond SPCA, welcomed the decision and characterized it as the result of years of pressure to have the circus change its ways.

“Our efforts to ban the use of bullhooks in Richmond was one of a few similar such efforts around the country that caused Ringling to take this step,” said Robin Starr, the SPCA’s chief executive officer.

“We are happy to have played a role in showing them that people recognize and will not continue to permit the lifetimes of abuse that elephants suffer in traveling shows.”

Starr said she hopes the City Council legislation still moves forward, because it would take effect a year earlier and also would prevent other circuses from using bullhooks in Richmond performances.

City and county efforts to pass “anti-circus” and “anti-elephant” ordinances, and the costs to fight them, also were a factor in the decision, according to Ringling officials.

Stephen Payne, vice president of corporate communications for Feld, said the company was playing “legislative whack-a-mole.”

“Just like the game that bears its name, after a while that gets tiresome,” Payne said. “Richmond is emblematic of a bigger issue we’re facing.”

Feld had hired The Alliance Group, a local lobbying firm, to help fight the ban.

Payne said the company hopes its decision on elephants will allow localities such as Richmond to move on to other business and stop “debating an issue that is very shortly going to become moot.”

Feld owns 43 elephants, and 29 of the giant animals live at the company’s 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. Thirteen animals will continue to tour with the circus before they retire to the center by 2018. One elephant is on a breeding loan to the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas.

Payne said the decision to stop using elephants is one of several changes Ringling has in the works to evolve and survive.

The circus will continue to use tigers, dogs and goats, and a Mongolian troupe of camel stunt riders joined its Circus Xtreme show this year. More motorsports, daredevils and feats of human physical capabilities likely will be showcased as well.

Ringling’s popular Canada-based competitor, Cirque du Soleil, features human acts and doesn’t use wild animals.

In 2008, Feld acquired a variety of motorsports properties, including monster truck shows, motocross and the International Hot Rod Association, which promotes drag races and other events.

In 2010, it created a theatrical motorcycle stunt show called Nuclear Cowboyz. About 30 million people attend one of Feld’s 5,000 live entertainment shows every year.

gmoomaw@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6839

Twitter: @gmoomaw

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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