An Overview of the Issues Surrounding Circus Animals

Protester holding sign
A protester holds a sign with graphic images of baby elephants being tormented. Michelle A. Rivera

As children, we all look forward to the circus. Between the lights, the ringmaster, the acrobats and the animals, there’s a lot to see and take in. For little ones, getting to see big animals up close — like a lion with his tamer or an elephant doing tricks — is often the main draw of the circus. After all, when do children (or even adults, for that matter) get to see animals like that in real life?

While it may seem like the circus is all fun and games, the truth is, there’s a lot more to it than just some shows and laughs.

Animal welfare has long been an issue discussed when it comes to circuses. Animal welfare advocates say that circuses should be shut down because of their treatment of animals.

In fact, in early 2017, it was announced that the Ringling Bros. Circus was shutting down for good — and animal advocates called this a win.

Here is an overview of some of the animal welfare issues surrounding circuses.

Circus Animals Live Unnatural Lives

When we think of circus animals, it’s not often dogs and cats that come to mind. This is because animals used in circuses are not domesticated animals, in the traditional sense. They’re wild animals who are forced to be a part of something they didn’t ask for.

In the wild, female elephants are extremely social animals and live in groups called herds. They are very intelligent creatures with the capacity to remember things for many years. When an elephant baby, called a calf, is born, it is raised by the whole herd.

In a circus, elephants are not able to live out their natural behaviors. They don’t live in groups and they don’t get to form bonds with other animals.

Similarly, for primates in circuses, their lives are hugely different from how they would be in the wild. Often, monkeys and other primates live in groups, communicating with each other and traveling together. These primates are not given the ability to live their natural lives in a circus. The same can be said for all other circus animals.

What’s worse is the tricks they are forced to perform — like playing with balls or standing on a stool or riding a bicycle — are often very uncomfortable for the animal and certainly not natural.

Circus Animals Are Kept in Cages Most of Their Lives

In conjunction with not being able to live natural lives, circus animals are most often kept in cages or shackled when they are not performing. In other words, they aren’t usually given time outdoors and they don’t usually have enough space to roam freely.

For travel, animals are often either caged without being attended to very frequently or they are kept in trucks.

They also travel constantly, which means that for days or weeks at a time, they are kept in confinement. They can be kept this way rain or shine, whether the weather is cool and temperate or swelteringly hot. Large animals, like elephants, are most often shackled at the feet and even slightly smaller animals, like tigers and lions, are kept in cages.

Animals in captivity — any type of animals in captivity, not just animals used for entertainment — tend to become depressed. After all, it’s clear that a dog or cat living in a cage nearly 24 hours a day would be very unhappy. Similarly, these circus animals are being given a life of confinement and boredom.

Circus Animals Are Abused During Training

One of the most egregious issues with circuses is that animals are often horrifically abused during training. None of the performance behaviors animals exhibit in circuses are natural to them, so in order to get them to perform, trainers need to use the maximum amount of intimidation and punishment possible. This includes using electric prods to shock the animals, bullhooks for elephants, and even, of course, whips to beat the animals into submission for the performance.

Often, animals will also be drugged to assist with their submissiveness. Their teeth and claws are frequently removed, as well.

There have been several documented cases of circus animal abuse from animal rights organizations such as PETA. Since it would be impossible to oversee each individual circus during the entirety of travel and training, most animal rights abuses at circuses fly under the radar until an organization uncovers the truth through undercover reporting.

Circus Animals Sometimes Snap After Years of Abuse

After years of this kind of abuse, it’s no wonder that many animals “snap.” This includes attacking their trainers, attacking the public, attempting to run away, or even harming other animals.

Often, animals that attempt to run away end up in the news. While people love to see an animal break free, many still support the circus from where the animal was running. And quite frequently, the animal that has tried to escape either goes back to that same circus or ends up euthanized.

Either way, it is a known phenomenon that circus animals sometimes turn on people due to their cruel treatment in the circus. Because there have been several instances of animals “snapping” after years of abuse, the harmful nature of circuses poses a direct threat to humans.

The Future of Circuses

Circuses, as may be evident, are not havens for animals, by any means.

Part of the reason circuses have gotten away with this behavior to animals thus far is because there is only one federal law directly regulating circus animals: the Animal Welfare Act. The AWA covers animals used in “transport” or for “exhibition.” The AWA, however, is by no means actually protective of these animals. It only sets very minimal standards and is rarely enforced.

In other words, these animals don’t get a lot of protection.

The tide of public desire to see circuses has been changing over the past several years, however.

Along with the closure of Ringling Bros. Circus, one of the biggest and most well-known circuses that exploited animals, public sentiment towards animals in entertainment has been waning. Non-animal circuses like Cirque du Soleil continue to grow in popularity.

Although legislation for animals hasn’t caught up, public opinion has made a big difference in this arena.

The future circuses that use animals looks to be bleak. However, non-animal entertainment, which is more humane, looks to be in a growth phase, so it’s likely that people will be enjoying some type of circuses for years to come.