After 116 years of captivity, animal crackers have been freed from their cages.
It was a symbolic victory for animal welfare activists, notably People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which had argued that the immediately recognizable yellow-and-red boxes by Nabisco portrayed a cruel bygone era when traveling circuses transported exotic wildlife in confinement.
The new boxes are expected to arrive in stores this week. They show a zebra, an elephant, a lion, a giraffe and a gorilla roaming free side-by-side in a natural habitat, a sweeping savanna with trees in the distance.
While the animals enjoy freedom on the box, the small, crisp, sweet crackers themselves are of course still destined for human stomachs or perhaps the crevices of baby strollers.
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They were not let out without a little controversy. It started in 2016, when PETA, which opposes the confinement of wild animals for entertainment, asked Mondelez International, the parent company of Nabisco, to remove the cages.
PETA wrote in a letter that year that public sentiment about animal exhibitions had changed over the years, and that the packaging of Barnum’s Animals should reflect that.
“Circuses tear baby animals away from their mothers, lock animals in cages and chains, and cart them from city to city,” the animal rights group wrote in the letter. “They have no semblance of a natural life.”
The letter led Mondelez to consider a new look. Other companies sell animal-shaped crackers and cookies, but this was the only brand that had locked them behind bars.
Since the crackers’ creation in 1902, Barnum’s Animals packaging had changed very little.
The species on display changed — an American elk was added in 1923 and a brown bear in 1987 — but they were always behind bars in a cage, similar to those at the crackers’ namesake circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
Some limited-edition boxes have featured marine life (not in nets) and endangered species (outside cages), and some have helped raise money for the World Wildlife Fund. Barnum’s Animals are also sold in Canada, where cages are not part of the design.
The company maintains the design change is part of a continuum.
“Throughout our history, we have leveraged and evolved our classic design to drive awareness around key animal and environmental issues,” a Mondelez spokeswoman said Tuesday. “To continue to make the brand relevant for years to come, we felt this was the right time for the next evolution in our design, now showing the animals in a natural habitat.”
The slightly sweetened snacks are technically crackers, not cookies, though the ingredients are similar and the line is not as clear as one might think. They debuted at a time when Americans had a very different view of exotic wildlife. Zoos and traveling circuses were entertainment destinations to observe animals that had been plucked from habitats halfway around the world.
It was also socially acceptable, as child performer Shirley Temple sang in 1935, to enjoy animal crackers in your soup.
But zoos eventually evolved, taking on a mission of conservation, and circuses lost popularity. When PETA wrote its letter to Mondelez in 2016, Ringling Bros. had recently announced that elephants would be retired from its acts. The next year, the circus shut down its entire show, ending a 146-year-old piece of Americana and giving a victory to PETA.
Within a year, Mondelez was discussing a new box design with the group.
And the rest is snack history.