At performances of Circus Roncalli in Germany, an elephant stands before the audience, its ears flapping and trunk wagging. It hoists up its hind legs as the crowd applauds. Then it disappears.
The elephant, like the other animals featured in Circus Roncalli, is a 3-D hologram—a tech-savvy effort to preserve the flavor of historic circuses while eliminating concerns of animal cruelty.
As German newspaper the Rheinische Post reports, Circus Roncalli was founded in 1976 and began phasing out animal performances in the 1990s. Since 2018, the show has featured no live animals, turning instead to holographic projections with 360-degree visibility for spectators seated around the ring. According to the BBC, it takes 11 projectors to pull off the feat.
Some of the holographic acts replicate traditional circus fare, like the performing elephant and an ethereal ring of horses that gallops around the big top. Other acts are more fantastical; circus-goers of the past, for instance, would not have been treated to the sight of a huge goldfish hovering in the middle of the ring.
Once a mainstay of popular entertainment, circuses have been struggling in recent years. A number of factors have driven that decline, including the emergence of other media, like movies and video games, that compete for the young audiences’ attention and the increased cost of transporting a gaggle of performers and animals by train. (In 2016, when Circus Roncalli still used some animals, a single trip could cost them almost $90,000, according to business newspaper Handelsblatt.)
But reports of horrifying animal cruelty played a role in damaging the circus’ reputation. In the United States, activist groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) spent years targeting the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus with campaigns and lawsuits. In 2015, Ringling decided to phase out its elephants, citing a “mood shift” among consumers, but this only led to a further decline in ticket sales. While some were disappointed to see the elephants go, others continued to protest the circus’ use of lions, tigers, horses, kangaroos and other animals. In 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey shut down after a 146-year run.
Today, seven American states and 149 cities, towns and counties have implemented restrictions on the use of wild animals in circuses, according to the animal welfare group Four Paws. Just last year, New Jersey and Hawaii enacted statewide bans on animal circus acts, and globally, more than 40 countries have placed restrictions or bans on animal performances.
As Circus Roncalli has shown, this concern over the treatment of animals doesn’t mean they have to be completely absent from the big top. With a little help from technology, the show can go on.