The Greatest Show on Earth will soon be without elephants.
Ringling Bros. announced Thursday it will gradually reduce the use of elephants in its shows, and all will be retired by 2018.
Elephants have for years played prominently in the circus' shows and its advertising. They triumphantly enter the ring, then perform a synchronized dance routine.
But Ringling Bros.' treatment of the pachyderms has also come under scrutiny. It has been repeatedly criticized -- and even sued -- by several animal rights groups, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States.
In 2011, the circus was fined $270,000 by the USDA for violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
Ringling Bros. said it currently has 13 elephants traveling for its shows.
About 40 are at its 200-acre Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, created in 1995 by Ringling as a facility for the care and study of Asian elephants, the variety it uses in shows and an endangered species.
"No other institution has done or is doing more to save this species from extinction, and that is something of which I and my family are extremely proud," said Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Ringling Bros. owner, Feld Entertainment.
"This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers," Feld said.
Ringling Bros. said its shows "will continue to feature other extraordinary animal performers, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels."