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Ringling Bros. ending elephant acts over animal treatment concerns

The circus' parent company, Feld Entertainment, told The Associated Press exclusively that the acts will be phased out by 2018.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is ending its quintessential elephant acts after 145 years in part due to concerns over animal treatment, the company announced Thursday morning. The last show will be in 2018. 

"It is a legacy that we hold near and dear to our hearts, and as producers of The Greatest Show On Earth, we feel we have a responsibility to preserve the esteemed traditions that everyone expects from a Ringling Bros. performance while striving to keep the show fresh and contemporary for today's families," leadership at Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, said in a statement Thursday. 

The Associated Press first broke the news early Thursday.  

In what Feld Entertainment is calling an "unprecedented move," the circus plans to phase out elephant acts by 2018. Thirteen elephants currently in the circus will be transported to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida by 2018, joining 40 elephants that are already there. The circus said, however, it is not ending its other exotic animal performances that include lions and tigers.

"This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995. When we did so, we knew we would play a critical role in saving the endangered Asian elephant for future generations, given how few Asian elephants are left in the wild," Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment Kenneth Feld said in the statement. 

PETA Co-Founder and President Ingrid E. Newkirk said on msnbc Thursday that the move is "145 years too late, but it's better now than never," adding, "I think they realized we have so many whistle-blowers, so many photos of elephant abuse ... [of elephants] kept in shackles in boxcars."

"They can't carry on, they cant hide it all from the public," Newkirk told host Jose Diaz-Balart. "They have to do something different, finally."

The company doubled down on its fight to keep animals from going extinct, saying in the statement that "no other institution has done or is doing more to save this species" and adding that it will continue to contribute to conservation programs in the United States and Sri Lanka. 

The Captive Animal Law Enforcement at PETA has submitted 124 legal complaints since 1993, Brittany Peet, deputy director of the division, told msnbc. PETA employees have published images of abusive baby elephant training by Ringling employees, have staged demonstrations outside of Ringling performances, and have supplied members with materials and signs to stage their own protests in front of shows.

Feld had to pay $275,000 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Since 2005, 12 of Ringling's elephants have either died or been euthanized, accoring to PETA.

"This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers," Feld said. "Our family has been the proud steward of the American institution that is Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, and our elephants, for 45 years. "As the circus evolves, we can maintain our focus on elephant conservation while allowing our business to continue to meet shifting consumer preferences."

Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, called the decision "a tremendous victory."

"We continue to oppose using elephants or any wild or exotic animals in circuses, carnivals and other traveling animal shows because of resulting stress and cruelty, as well as inevitable physical, social and psychological deprivations," he wrote in a statement to msnbc.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.