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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The clowns, animal acts and acrobats of the storied Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus took their final bow at an arena outside New York on Sunday, with a space-themed balancing act kicking off the farewell performance of the "Greatest Show on Earth" after nearly 150 years.
Capping a legacy that stretches back to 19th century showman P.T. Barnum, the circus bade adieu at a series of shows this weekend at the newly refurbished Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale on New York's Long Island.
"It's incredibly heartwarming to see all of you that have come out for the final performance," Kenneth Feld, chairman and chief executive of parent Feld Entertainment Inc, said at the show, which was sold out and live streamed on the Ringling website.
He said more than 250 million people had seen Ringling's shows and added: "It's the people, it's the spirit, the dedication, the perseverance of everyone that you'll see here tonight that makes the impossible possible."
Spacesuited tightrope walkers Laszlo Simet and his wife, Olga, launched the final show on a slowly revolving wedge-shaped wheel. Among the stunts, she did a headstand on his shoulders and Laszlo Simet rode a bicycle around the wheel's rim while carrying his wife and another performer.
The finale, announced by Feld in January, came a year after the company bowed to pressure from animal rights activists and agreed to stop using elephants in its performances. A featured attraction for more than a century, the elephants had come to symbolize the Ringling Bros brand.
Feld decided to fold its tent as a result of high operating costs combined with lower ticket sales, it said in a statement at the time. After phasing out the elephants, the owner said, the decline in attendance was "greater than could have been anticipated."
Ringling Bros continued to showcase tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels until the end, despite fierce criticism from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The animal rights group tied Ringling's demise to its long-standing resistance to demands that it stop using animals. The circus has long defended its treatment of animals as humane.
"Our audiences today loved seeing horses, dogs and two very talented 700-pound (317-kg) pigs," Feld spokesman Stephen Payne said on Sunday.
The 13 Asian elephants used in Ringling's two touring companies were retired to the company's 200-acre (80-hectare) Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Florida.
Fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. About 250 are in captivity in the United States, 26 of which were born in the past 20 years at Ringling facilities.
Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and Ian Simpson in Washington; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Andrew Hay and Peter Cooney