Final bow for Ringling Bros' elephants

Elephants perform in the Ringling Bros' circus (Getty)
Elephants perform in the Ringling Bros' circus (Getty)

One of the biggest circus operators in the United States has retired its elephants, after one last show.

P T Barnum added 'Jumbo' to the so-called greatest show on Earth in 1882. After decades of pressure from animal rights activists, the final 11 elephants still touring with Ringling Bros performed for the last time at a circus in Rhode Island.

"We love our girls. Thank you so much for so many years of joy," ringmaster Johathan Lee Iverson said as the elephants left the ring. "That's history tonight there, ladies and gentlemen, true American icons."

They will now head south to Florida, where they will join 29 other elephants owned by the company at an 81-hectare centre for critically endangered animals.

"They will spend their days socialising, roaming the pastures of the vast facility, all while receiving the highest level of care from our animal care team," the circus said in a statement.

"From the time that they're born to the time they pass away, we value them as the incredible animals that they are. The future of this species is in great hands."

The herd of 40 will be the largest in North America.

Even though it was their last show, animal rights protesters still showed up outside the venue.

There are at least a dozen other circuses still using elephants in the US according to the Humane Society, but none are as big as Ringling Bros.

"It's an end of an era that should have ended a long, long time ago," Humane Society spokesperson Elinor Molgebott told CBS News. "This is so unnatural for them. They shouldn't be subject to abuse."

The Humane Society wants the elephants retired to much larger sanctuaries in California and Tennessee, but Ringling Bros says there's more than enough room at its Florida facility.

It won't be getting rid of animals altogether however -- the elephants' final show also featured horses, lions, pigs, dogs and tigers.

New Zealand's last circus elephant, Mila, was freed in 2009 after three decades living in a trailer.