Barely three months ago, a spokesman for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told a reporter flatly, “We can’t perform without the elephants.” For more than a century, the circus has touted its elephant herd as its piece de resistance, the climax to a dazzling spectacle of showmanship Ringling, and only Ringling, could deliver.

Props to Ringling for lowering the curtain on those archaic elephant routines. But it’s not enough to stop there. Those fire-leaping tigers and that brand-new camel act they’ve rolled out need to be retired, too. The lives of those animals are no less wretched.

So, understandably, the circus’s announcement Thursday that it will instead phase out its elephant act by 2018 was a complete stunner, a game-changer that could someday lead to the demise of performing wild animal acts entirely in this country.

Props to Ringling for lowering the curtain on those archaic elephant routines. But it’s not enough to stop there. Those fire-leaping tigers and that brand-new camel act they’ve rolled out need to be retired, too. The lives of those animals are no less wretched.

We could debate what prompted Feld Entertainment Chairman and CEO Kenneth Feld’s change of heart until nightfall. But his family acknowledged that the public’s discomfort with watching elephant tricks carried out to blaring music and under klieg lights played a role.

Americans are besotted with animals, and as more of us have come to realize what miserable lives circus elephants lead – separated from their mothers and forced to learn tricks at an early age, they’re chained in place and hauled thousands of miles across country – our dissatisfaction was starting to boil.

It was one thing to whale on elephants, tigers and bears to get them to perform back when we thought animals were unthinking beasts who felt no pain. Today, there’s no excuse: we know that elephants, especially, are intelligent beings capable of expressing humor, sympathy and grief — and most definitely able to feel the effects of a bullhook’s wallop. And we see how much happier and healthier elephants are when they can meander freely in the natural settings of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and the PAWS Sanctuary in California. (The Elephant Sanctuary’s “ele-cams” are a huge hit: www.elephants.com.)

So props to Ringling for lowering the curtain on those archaic elephant routines. But it’s not enough to stop there. Those fire-leaping tigers and that brand-new camel act they’ve rolled out need to be retired, too. The lives of those animals are no less wretched. The same goes for the smaller circuses that travel the country’s backroads with their own menageries.

The groundswell against animal exploitation is only going to grow, so the circus world could save itself continued headaches by getting ahead of the wave. Besides, a circus without animals isn’t as implausible as it sounds. Does anyone really believe today’s children are googly-eyed by dancing bears? At a circus I attended, the kids were too busy playing with their glo-sticks to even notice the animal acts. More than a dozen countries overseas have banned wild animals entirely from circuses and lo and behold: the show has gone on.

Carol Bradley is a former investigative newspaper reporter and the author of "Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top," published last year by St. Martin's Press. She lives in Great Falls, Montana. Follow her on Facebook (Carol Bradley author) and Twitter (@CarolDBradley). Her website is www.carolbradley.com.