IN THE NEWS: Curtain falls on final Ringling Brothers circus performance

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IN THE NEWS: On MAY 22, 2017

The final curtain fell late on Sunday (Monday AEST) on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, known widely as "the Greatest Show on Earth".

The circus, which traces its lineage back to showman PT Barnum's travelling museum in the 1800s, performed its final show at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.

Ringling streamed the final show on its website and on Facebook Live, where at least 19,000 viewers watched at one point. One commenter remarked: "I remember seeing the Greatest Show on Earth as a little girl with my family. Thank you for all your hard work and all the joy you brought to us all."

The move came as circuses and animal-performance shows across the country have struggled with declining attendance, shrinking attention spans and shifting social pressure brought to bear by activists who have argued the animals are sometimes poorly treated.

The battle over animal rights dealt a seemingly fatal blow to the circus - Ringling had been targeted by organisations such as PETA, which considers it cruel to force animals to perform.

Producers removed elephants from the show's performances a year ago, and Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, said ticket sales dropped drastically. The company had long battled animal rights activists in costly court skirmishes, winning a $US15.75 million judgment against them in 2015. But it apparently lost the larger fight with public opinion.

"The circus and its people have continually been a source of inspiration and joy to my family and me, which is why this was such a tough business decision to make," company chief executive Kenneth Feld said in statement in January. "The decision was even more difficult because of the amazing fans that have become part of our extended circus family over the years, and we are extremely grateful to the millions of families who have made Ringling Bros. part of their lives for generations."

Before Feld, there was Phineas Taylor Barnum's travelling show of animals and human oddities, and the five Ringling brothers' juggling act and skits in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. They merged and performed across the country, travelling by train. The Feld family bought the Ringling circus in 1967.

At its prime, the circus was considered a family-friendly outing. But the shows lost their appeal toward the end of the 20th century, Feld said. He believes it grew outdated and difficult for audiences with shorter attention spans.

"The competitor in many ways is time," he said. "It's a different model that we can't see how it works in today's world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price. So you've got all these things working against it."

When the Feld family first acquired the circus, the show was just under three hours. At the end, the show was two hours and seven minutes. The longest segment - a tiger act - clocked in at 12 minutes.

During Sunday's final performance, Alexander Lacey, the circus's big cat trainer, addressed the animal-rights issue directly, pausing from his act to tell the crowd that the circus had bred, raised and cared for 500 lions and tigers. On display on Sunday night, he said, were the circus's ninth generation of tigers and 11th generation of lions.

"People are not really concerned with wildlife until they feel it and see it and enjoy it," he said, "and love it as much as I do - until they've seen it with their own eyes."

He told the crowd: "It's so important that you carry on supporting all those people that do dedicate their lives to these animals. Support good, well-run circuses. Support good, well-run zoos. Support good, well-run public parks that look after these animals."

Lacey's exhortation wasn't the only direct message. Before Sunday night's performance began, Feld himself addressed the crowd, with family members by his side, telling circus-goers: "From the bottom of our hearts we want to say thank you all very much, and please enjoy and celebrate the Greatest Show on Earth one last time."

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