Ringling Bro. circus elephants take final bow

Last Updated May 2, 2016 12:14 AM EDT

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The final performance for elephants at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus took place on Sunday night. This after years of pressure from animal rights groups.

The greatest show on earth is letting go of its biggest performers. Eleven Asian elephants, performing their last head stands, and taking their final bows. Ending a 200-year spectacle that has enthralled fans and enraged animal activists for years.

Ringling Bros. Circus to end elephant act

Kenneth Feld is chairman of the parent company who owns Ringling Brothers.

"It is a bittersweet decision, there is no question about that, but it is the best thing. And we felt this was the right time to do it," he said.

The right time to retire these enormous animals, with their star-studded tiaras, who have been the subject of thousands of YouTube videos from activists citing animal abuse.

Actor Alec Baldwin even jumped into the fray.

"It is hard for me to believe that anyone would have to be dragged kicking and screaming into show business, but for the elephants with Ringling Brothers," he said in 2012, "That's exactly what happens."

It's all part of a huge shift in U.S. attitudes toward animal entertainment -- with SeaWorld phasing out its killer whale shows at its amusement parks weeks ago.

These elephants will retire to a 200-acre conservation center in Florida run by the owner of Ringling Brothers. More than a dozen circuses still tour with elephants, but none as widely, or with as much fanfare, as Ringling Brothers.

Elinor Molgebott is with the Humane Society of New York.

"It's an end of an era that should have ended a long, long time ago," she said. "This is so unnatural for them. They shouldn't be subject to abuse."

The controversy will likely not end here. Ringling Brothers said they will continue to use other animals, including lions, tigers, horses, and kangaroos in their animal acts.