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As Ringling Bros. Closes, Circus Workers Are Left Scrambling for New Jobs

The iconic circus is shutting down after years of animal rights protests over its treatment of elephants, and longtime employees are now panicking over how they will support themselves.

by Mitchell Sunderland
Jan 24 2017, 4:05pm

A Ringling Bros. performer with the circus elephants. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Following decades of battles against PETA and other animal rights activists, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has thrown their towel into the ring. On May 21, "the Greatest Show on Earth" will perform for the final time. Feld Entertainment, the circus's corporate owner, can no longer afford to run the circus. Last year, the company retired the shows' performing elephants after PETA released a 13-page expose accusing Ringling Bros. of using bullhooks and electrical prods on the animals.

Feld Entertainment denied the accusations, but ditched the elephants anyway, citing the economic cost of transporting them from city to city and acknowledging that public opinion had shifted out of their favor. Instead, ticket sales collapsed dramatically.

"The majority of people, it ends up, wanted to see the elephants," says Ringling Bros. band trombonist Megan O'Malley.

PETA has celebrated the circus's demise, tweeting about what they call the end of "the Saddest Show on Earth." Regardless of the controversy surrounding performing animals, the closure has thrust Ringling Bros.' employees into economic uncertainty. About 400 people will lose their jobs come May.

"It's traumatic!" says Johnathan Lee Iverson, who became Ringling Bros.' first African-American ringmaster 18 years ago. "For artists and crew alike, it's bearing witness to the death of the penultimate icon of our industry. This decision has international ramifications. Artists, the world over, work their entire lives to get to the Greatest Show On Earth."

Working-class circus employees will face a bizarre matrix of circumstances as they search for new jobs in the workforce. Many contortionists, acrobats, and clowns come from families that have worked in the three rings for generations; all have honed skills only useful to the circus. "It's a specification," O'Malley explains. "Circus is a very specific kind of work."

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"They spend their lives perfecting five to seven minutes that they do to entertain audiences," says Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment.

Older circus people could be hurt the most. Some middle-aged men have worked for Ringling Bros. for decades, selling popcorn, cotton candy, and T-shirts in concession stands. O'Malley's boss, the band leader, has performed in the circus band for 23 years. "He is not traditionally from a circus family, but that's how long he's been here as bandmaster," she says. "He's going to have a very hard time. He loves this job. He has a family to support." The statistics are against him. On average, the Department of Labor reports people 45 or over look for nine months for a new job, versus people age 35 to 44 who only apply for jobs for six months.

The Ringling Bros. clown troupe peek through the curtain as they watch the final elephant show. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Right now, Ringling Bros. employees are just searching for places to live. According to Iverson and O'Malley, most circus employees live on the Ringling Bros. train, which transports them from town to town, and lack a permanent residency. Some people have been able to build up savings, since Ringling Bros. covers their living expenses on two-year tours.

Feld Entertainment has volunteered to assist those who are hunting for housing and are trying to place as many employees as possible in new jobs. According to Iverson, laid-off workers have been told they will receive severance packages. "Obviously, Feld Entertainment isn't just kicking us to the curb," Iverson says. The company, he notes, has even started teaching circus employees how to make resumes, since many haven't applied for a job in years.

When asked PETA's views on how the closure affects Ringling Bros. employees, Katie Arth, a spokesperson for PETA, said: "The public does not want animals to be separated from their families, exploited, and abused for entertainment. Businesses that cling to this archaic model are doomed, while animal-free circuses such as Cirque du Soleil have experienced skyrocketing popularity. Ringling Bros. circus could have ditched the animal acts—as so many Shrine circuses have done—but instead, it allowed its attendance to dwindle and its tickets to lag, while protests were held outside every show, until it finally had to shut down. Ringling decided to call it quits instead of updating as others have done—so the loss of jobs is attributable to Feld Entertainment's lack of vision and unwillingness to change with the times and public taste."

In response to why PETA believed alleged animal abuse led to a decrease in ticket sales, when sales actually fell after the circus stopped using elephants, another PETA spokesman, Ben Williamson, said, "Attendance has been dropping at Ringling for years... This isn't something that happened over night."

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"Is it a surprise that the animal rights groups are ignoring the impact on jobs?" Payne asks. "No, that's what they do."

Clown Chris Mana has set up SaveAmericasCircus.org, a website to trying to keep Ringling Bros. operating. Most circus people grew up idolizing the industry, either as kids whose parents worked for the big top or as children longing to run away and perform. Now their employer has made them pariahs about to be unemployed. On the circus train traveling to South Carolina, in tow with horses and performers, Iverson describes a grim mood. "Can you even think of the last time you heard the very word 'circus' used in a positive way?" Iverson says. "It's terrible to see and hear something you live and love be so viciously maligned."

After 146 years, circus people didn't expect Ringling Bros. to close, but in retrospect, they see signs that foreshadowed the company's' death. The hardest part for O'Malley has been the vitriol directed at her over the years. "I am a musician. I am constantly verbally attacked [by people] online," O'Malley says. "The vast majority of us have nothing to do with the animals."

For now, though, she's just focused on finding a new job.

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