The Ringling Bros.’ and Barnum & Bailey circus act brings its lovable and legendary elephants to Philadelphia for a grand finale this weekend.
It’s no secret the Asian elephants are getting up in years, and the trainers and handlers of the gentle beasts are beginning to steer them towards retirement.
Johnathan Lee Iverson, Ringling Bros.’ ringmaster – and the first African-American ringmaster of any major U.S. circus – said this weekend’s performance, "Legends," at the Wells Fargo Center, will be the last for 11 elephants, before they move to their permanent home at Ringling Bros.' Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Fla.
“They’re an American icon. They are as familiar as Uncle Sam,” said Iverson.
“They’re something you take for granted until they’re gone.”
Iverson called the removal of the elephants the biggest change Ringling Bros. has made in the company’s 146-year history.
“They’re irreplaceable,” he said.
“The show will obviously be different, but it will also be exciting. I remind people we still have the world’s greatest menagerie. It’s just a lot lighter now," he quipped.
Iverson described the two-decade old elephant conservation center as a 200-acre facility equipped with some of the top animal scientists and veterinarians on the planet. They'll be caring for the creatures 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.
Ringling Bros. has the oldest Asian elephant in the Western Hemisphere, at age 70. She’s at the center already.
The oldest four-legged performer in Philly is Karen, a 40-year old Asian elephant.
On Wednesday, Ringling Bros. visited and made a $10,000 donation to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in an effort to support local pediatric patients.
The circus is trying to raise awareness of the national cancer research being conducted by a doctor in Utah who is studying DNA from Ringling Bros. elephants and comparing it to DNA from his own patients with cancer. Iverson said scientists are studying why there is such a low incidence of cancer in elephants, what makes this cancer resistance possible in elephants and not in humans, and how it might correlate to new treatments for pediatric cancers.
“It’s a part of what we do in Ringling Bros. When we come to your city, we immerse ourselves in your community," said Iverson.
He said between the 300 or so performers, crew members, staff, management and animals – they’re hard to miss in any town.
“It’s proper we give them a taste of something I believe should be a requirement of every boy and girl – the joy and experience of the greatest show of earth.”
“This ties into our mission of giving these kids some normalization – to get to be kids and get to have fun and see some things they might not normally see,” said Kris Schrader, manager of patient media and entertainment programming at CHOP.
“They don’t get to see the circus, so it really is a treat to them and something that really breaks up the day and reminds them how to have fun.”
Schrader said about 50 kids participated Wednesday, and for those who didn’t get to, personally, the clown doctors, Chinese acrobats, and dance group displays were broadcast through the hospital’s CCTV network.
After this weekend’s show in Philly, Ringling Bros. heads to Brooklyn, then onto Providence, R.I., in May, before they go home to retirement.
Tickets for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Legends” are on sale now.