Despite the progression of modern-day society in recognising the inherent cruelty that comes with using animals for entertainment, there are still many countries around the world in which it is legal for circuses to use animals as performers.

Animals suffer immensely in circuses around the world, viewed as nothing more than a spectacle for human amusement, their complex needs ignored and denied. The animal circus industry is indeed a dying one, becoming less and less aligned with the expectations and values of the public, with 45 countries imposing national and local bans, referring to animal welfare concerns as the primary reason.

In 2017, one of the world’s oldest circuses, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey (based in the USA), closed their operations permanently due to declining ticket sales, which the circus attributed, in part, to the public’s growing concerns surrounding animal welfare. One study, conducted by the University of Bristol in the UK, suggested it is likely impossible for the welfare and behavioural needs of exotic animals in travelling circuses to ever be met. 

Travel and constant confinement

Circus animals are subjected to constant travel as the show moves from town to town, often in small, barren cages with little or no enrichment. In Australia, for example, circus animals can legally be confined in transportation wagons for up to two days without exercise – a cause for serious concern regarding their psychological and physical wellbeing. 

A lion confined to a transport crate. Image: Reuters

The way circuses house exotic animals denies them the ability to express almost all behaviours that come naturally to them. Many animals used in circuses are social creatures, but are forced to live in unnatural circumstances, often in isolation, away from other members of their species.

This, unsurprisingly, has huge psychological implications for the animals. Lions and monkeys, for example, can often be observed pacing the length of their enclosures, known as a repetitive locomotion stereotype. This behaviour is a sign of compromised welfare, caused by stress, boredom, and discomfort in inappropriate living conditions. One study found that the average percentage of time spent pacing for captive lions was 48%, a stark comparison to wild lions who spend up to 20 hours a day resting.

An elephant being unloaded from a transport train. Image: National Geographic

Shockingly, big cats are only required to have an exercise area the size of 20m2, whereas in the wild they would normally roam a territory the size of 250km2 (usually 10km in one day). 

Animals in circuses in Australia are only required to have access to ‘display housing’ for 6 hours a day; the rest of the time they are allowed to be confined in ‘night quarters’, which have no minimum space requirements. The only exercise recommendations that exist within the standards is 45 minutes of training or performing a day, four days a week, raising serious concerns for the psychological well-being of circus animals with such limited stimulation. 

Cruel training practices and unnatural tricks

Trainer holds a whip whilst instructing tigers to dance in a circus show. Image: Greyloch.

There are a number of cruel practices used by circuses worldwide to force animals to submit and follow trainer’s instructions. Some of the training practices commonly used in the animal circus industry include:

  • Electric shocks/prods – used to inflict pain on animals to force them to obey commands in fear of physical pain if they do not.
  • Bullhooks – commonly used on elephants, bullhooks often have a sharp hook on the end that is intended to inflict pain on elephants so that they obey commands.
  • Whips – whips are a form of punishment-based training; animals are taught to fear the whip and perform to avoid being struck by it. It is worth noting that whips are used in Australian circuses.
  • Food deprivation – a common practice used widely in training animals for performances, where animals are deprived of food for a certain period of time and are taught that when they follow commands they are ‘rewarded’ food. Desperation for food and hunger-related exhaustion often means animals are at the mercy of trainers.
Horses being made to stand in an unnatural position during a performance. 

Many of the tricks that circus animals are forced to perform are behaviours that they would never exhibit in nature, perpetuating the harmful belief that animals exist for human use. Animals are often made to stand in unnatural positions, such as on their hind legs, for extended periods, as well as regularly be dressed in costumes that demean their value as individuals who are not just tools for human entertainment.

A goat walking a tightrope while a monkey is chained to them.

Footage has emerged on several occasions revealing trainers brutally beating circus animals. One instance occurred as recently as 2011, when UK circus Bobby Roberts was exposed for extreme cruelty, with a worker beating Anne the elephant with a pitchfork whilst her legs were chained to the ground and she was unable to move.

Human impact

Danger to the public and trainers 

There have been many instances over time, where performing animals have reached their absolute limits, and snapped, turning on their trainers and sometimes the audience too.

Since 1990, there have been over 300 instances of big cats (in all forms of captivity) attacking humans in the US alone, 20 of which resulted in a fatality. As recently as 2019, a lion attacked their trainer during a circus performance in Ukraine. These statistics alone should tell us that animals do not belong in captivity, especially for the sole purpose of human entertainment.

Tyke

Tyke was an African elephant from Mozambique, who was stolen from her home and forced to perform in the circus. During a show in Honolulu, Hawaii, Tyke killed her trainer and seriously injured her groomer. Tyke escaped the arena, injuring members of the public, in what has been described as a fit of rage from years of abuse. Police opened fire on Tyke in the middle of a street, shooting her 86 times before she finally died. It should be noted, despite no circuses in Australia using elephants, it is still perfectly legal for them to do so.

Youtube: Tyke the Elephant’s Last Day on Earth

Promoting exploitative relationships with animals

Circuses exist for human entertainment. They are not educational, rather they teach children that it is acceptable to humiliate, exploit, and mistreat animals simply for their own amusement. When children see animals being made to perform for humans, it teaches them that animals exist solely for the benefit of humans. In the words of Peter Singer, “quite apart from the cruelty involved in training and confining these animals, the whole idea that we should enjoy the humiliating spectacle of an elephant or lion made to perform circus tricks shows a lack of respect for the animals as individuals.”

Alternatives

Cirque du Soleil performance.

The largest contemporary circus in the world, Cirque du Soleil, does not use any animals in their performances – only talented, consenting humans. The show is impressive and captivating, proving that circuses do not need animals to be a welcomed attraction around the world. There are circuses all around the world using only human performers. We suggest the easiest way to find one in your local area is a google search for circuses in your area and check their website to see if they have any animal performers. If they do, you know they are one to avoid.