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Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is putting on its final show on May 21, bringing an end to its 146-year history.
Spectacle and wonder have been associated with the popular circus over the decades, but so have controversy and claims of abuse.
For years animal rights group have followed “The Greatest Show on Earth” to protest the show’s use and treatment of animals, claiming the animals in the show were beaten, chained and given little to no freedom.
Among these overarching concerns, several controversies that alarmed not only animal activists, but the public as well.
Here are scandals that have followed Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to its final curtain call. (Note: The circus did not yet reply to PEOPLE's request for comment on the allegations that follow.)
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Kenny the Elephant Dies After Performing
One of the first elephant deaths at the circus to capture national attention was that of Kenny. In 1998 the 3-year-old elephant died after being forced to perform three shows while he was sick; he passed hours after the last show. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged the circus with violations of the Animal Welfare Act. These charges were later dropped when the circus donated $20,000 to elephant conservation.
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Recent Elephant Deaths
The sudden deaths of baby elephants under the circus’s care are not a thing of the past. In 2016, a 2-year-old elephant living at the circus’s Center for Elephant Conservation died. A press release revealed that Mike, the youngest elephant at the center, died due to a herpes virus common in captive elephants. This death brought into question how elephants at the center were being treated, reports The Dodo. Mike’s death was just another addition to the long list of elephant fatalities.
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In 2004 the circus was investigated by the USDA after a young lion died in the staff's care. The lion was being transported across the Mojave Desert in a circus train, and passed away in the sweltering heat. A former Ringling Bros. trainer claimed that death occurred because the lion wasn’t given water during the extreme heat, according to The Washington Post.
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Ricardo the Elephant Dies During Training
Also is 2004, a baby elephant named Ricardo died under the circus’s care. According to The Washington Post, staff originally claimed the elephant died when he fell off a platform, but it was later discovered that the elephant died during a training exercise in which he was dragged off a platform with a rope.
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USDA Finds Multiple Violations
In 2011 the USDA decided to inspect the circus’s facilities and records. After a thorough search they found numerous violations of the regulations set in place for the animals’ safety and fined the circus $270,000. Violations included making sick animals perform, keeping animals in rusty and splintered cages and using the same wheelbarrows to feed animals and remove their waste.
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Elephant Shows End in Controversy
Before shutting down completely, Ringing Bros. announced the end of its elephant acts in 2015 (originally the acts were set to be phased out by 2018). The CEO of Feld Entertainment, which runs the circus, said the decision was made in the interest of protecting the endangered elephant population, not because of the increasing outcry about how the circus treats animals, USA Today reported. Even though the acts will come to an end with the final show, elephants will still be bred at the circus’s conservation center.