SOMERS, N.Y.— In 1808, Somers resident Hachaliah Bailey bought an Indian elephant for $1,000 to help on his farm. But when he realized that the elephant, named "Old Bet," was the talk of the town, Bailey began taking her on tour throughout the Northeast.
Something Bailey didn’t realize was that "Old Bet" would set the precedent for the world-famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, founded over a century later in 1919, and its trademark use of elephants in its shows.
But the limelight for the tusked mammals began to fade on Monday when Feld Entertainment, the circus’ parent company, announced that it would retire all elephants from its shows in May 2016, two years earlier than previously planned.
The decision came as a surprise to no town more than Somers, called the “Cradle of the American Circus,” where the original elephant’s legacy still remains.
“Bailey imported the second elephant ever into this country,” Somers Historical Society Vice President Grace Zimmerman said, likening him to a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs for his time. “He is the one that circus historians credit for the traveling menagerie business, a forerunner of what we know as the animal acts in the circus today.”
After "Old Bet" died on tour, Bailey built the Elephant Hotel along with a granite obelisk with an elephant statue on top. The building was purchased by the Town of Somers in 1927 and now houses the town offices, the Somers Historical Society, and on the third floor, the Museum of the Early American Circus.
“I think Somers residents have a pride in the elephants and the association with the circus,” Zimmerman said, noting that some local businesses even use elephant symbols for branding.
However, Somers residents can take solace in the Ringling Bros. Circus’ plans marking an end to years of criticism for alleged mistreatment of its elephants.
The company has been repeatedly rebuked and sued by animal rights groups and was fined a record-$270,000 in 2011 by the USDA for violating the Animal Welfare Act.Something Bailey didn’t realize was that "Old Bet" would set the precedent for the world-famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, founded over a century later in 1919, and their trademark use of elephants in their shows.
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