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What’s Wrong with the Circus?

Published 06/15/04
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 35 Number 2, Summer 2004

The circus is coming to town! This familiar phrase conjures vivid images of amazing acrobats, capering clowns ... and exotic animals. Unlike the human performers who choose to work in circuses, however, exotic animals are forced to take part in the show. They are involuntary actors in a degrading spectacle, forced into an unnatural life.

While many people associate the circus with “wholesome” fun (an association promoted aggressively by the circus PR machine), the truth is much darker. Using animals in circuses is an outdated, unnecessary, and cruel practice, and sends to children the message that it’s acceptable to use animals for amusement and profit. Circuses that exploit animals also engage in misleading marketing campaigns in schools, and falsely claim that their shows have educational value and help conserve animals in the wild.

Through public education, legislative action, regulatory reform, and media outreach, API is working to end the use of animals in circuses and other performing acts. All compassionate-minded people can join us in this fight! At the end of this article, we’ve provided information about steps you can take with API to end this cruel form of “entertainment.”

In order to help our supporters understand what’s at stake in this issue and to combat the mistreatment of animals in circuses effectively, we’ve prepared this article, which deconstructs some of the most common myths about animal circuses.

Myth #1: Laws require that animals in circuses be well cared-for.
Fact: The few laws that do exist are overly vague and poorly enforced.

In circuses and other performing acts, wild animals are forced to work in artificial environments foreign to their very nature. It might be reasonable to assume, therefore, that legal safeguards would be in place to protect the animals, who are likely to suffer in captivity. But while some regulatory protections do exist, these regulations are neither sufficiently specific nor adequately enforced.

The federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was adopted in 1969 to ensure the humane care and treatment of warm-blooded animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public. Individuals or entities licensed under the AWA must provide their animals with certain standards of care and treatment in the areas of housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather and temperatures. These standards, however, are minimal and don’t adequately protect exhibited animals from mistreatment, neglect, improper handling and training, and other problems associated with the circus.

Enforcement of welfare standards is also a problem. Through its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has the authority to enforce the law. Under APHIS, fewer than 100 inspectors are responsible for monitoring conditions at approximately 12,000 facilities — 2,600 of which are licensed exhibitors displaying exotic animals to the public. Most circuses, therefore, are subject only to infrequent inspections.

Even more troubling, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as a result of litigation reveal that USDA officials have repeatedly ignored obvious physical trauma to animals, eyewitness accounts of abuse, and sworn testimony from former circus employees who report mistreatment of elephants.

A prime example of the sorry state of AWA enforcement dates involves the “venerable” Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1998, a formal complaint was filed with the USDA, based on eyewitness accounts from two former Ringling Bros. employees who, while working in Ringling’s barns, witnessed routine beatings of elephants, including baby elephants. The workers submitted sworn videotaped and transcribed testimony to the USDA describing the beatings of elephants, and testified that another severely abused elephant, who posed a public safety threat due to years of abuse, was still exhibited to children in pre-show activities.

The USDA ignored these eyewitness accounts as well as other convincing reports of mistreatment, including evidence gathered during the agency’s own investigation, which revealed numerous bullhook wounds on elephants; sworn testimony from a then-current Ringling employee who saw “hook boils twice a week on average” on the elephants; and reports from the USDA’s own experts that the Ringling elephants may have been beaten with bullhooks.

The USDA also failed to investigate testimony regarding a particular elephant, Benjamin, who was reportedly subjected to frequent beatings. Instead of following up on these disturbing allegations, the agency closed its investigation after a mere five months. Two months later, Benjamin drowned in a pond. The USDA took no action against Ringling.

Unfortunately, even when USDA inspectors do note violations of the AWA by circuses, there is no guarantee that problems will be remedied in a timely fashion. After being served with a complaint, an exhibitor alleged to have violated the AWA has the opportunity to file a response to the charges, after which the case proceeds to resolution through either a consent decision or an oral hearing before an administrative law judge. If the exhibitor fails to respond, a judge issues a default order that assesses penalties. While most cases involving alleged AWA violations settle without proceeding to a hearing, investigating and resolving violations can be a lengthy process, which means that animals may have to endure unsatisfactory conditions or treatment for a long period of time. For example, Sterling & Reid Bros. Circus (now operating under the name “Toby Tyler Circus”) was cited by the USDA nine times between 1999 and 2001 for providing inadequate space for tigers.

Not surprisingly, at the same time that the circus industry claims to support regulations put in place to benefit animals, it works actively to oppose legislation intended to improve the conditions of captive wildlife.

For example, in California in 2002, API worked on a bill that would have protected both animals used in performances and the general public. If passed, SB 1210 would have required traveling circuses to provide local animal control agencies with a plan for recapture in case of animal escapes; a list of names and credentials of all exhibited animal keepers and handlers employed by the circus; and a list of current and previous names of animals as well as any known incidents in which the animal had escaped or threatened, injured, or killed any member of the public. The circus industry threw its weight into fighting the bill.

Myth #2: Circuses provide safe “family” entertainment.
Fact: The use of animals in circuses poses serious threats to public safety and health.

Animals exploited in circuses and other performing acts are forced into lives far different from the ones nature intended. The conflict between their inherent needs and instincts and the harsh realities of captivity — including cramped, unnatural living conditions and cruel training methods that utilize violence, fear, and intimidation — cause wild animals tremendous amounts of stress and suffering. It’s little wonder that some animals literally are driven mad by the experience and subsequently rebel in escapes and rampages that seriously injure people and cause major property damage.

Since 1990, “performing” elephants have been responsible for 12 human deaths and more than 126 injuries nationwide. During that same time period, there have been more than 123 documented attacks on humans by captive large cats in the U.S., 13 of which resulted in fatal injuries. A notable incident involving elephants occurred in Charlotte, NC in 2001, when two elephants leased by Hawthorn Corporation to Circus Vasquez rampaged through a church, nearly trampling church members, including children. The elephants crashed through glass window in the church and knocked a car 15 feet. One of the elephants had rampaged previously. In 2002, a tiger refused to return to his cage after a Circus Gatti performance in Sacramento, CA. The audience had to be evacuated from the arena, and police SWAT teams were called to the scene. (Further details about these and other incidents involving captive wild animals are available on API’s website.)

The threats captive wild animals pose to public safety extend beyond rampages and attacks. It is well known that exotic animals can transmit diseases to humans, as occurred with “pet” prairie dogs during the monkeypox outbreak of 2003.

In the circus setting, tuberculosis, or TB, is a serious concern. This bacterial disease affects various species, is a common affliction of circus elephants, and is easily communicable between elephants and humans. According to the USDA, any person who comes in contact with a TB-positive elephant is at risk of contracting the disease. Many circuses have a history of tuberculosis in their elephants, and many have even used TB-positive elephants in public performances, potentially endangering families and communities.

Myth #3: Animals in circuses live and travel in comfort.
Fact: “Performing” animals spend the bulk of their days in trailers, cages, or chains.

In the wild, elephants live in large, sociable herds and walk up to 25 miles every day. Most other wild animals found in circus settings, including lions and tigers, are also constantly on the move in their native habitats. To deprive these creatures of the freedom to roam and to engage in other instinctual behaviors is inherently cruel.

In the clutch of the circus, wild animals are confined to travel trucks or trains for, on average, 11 months of each year. Life “on the road” takes a heavy toll on animals. For thousands of hours, over long distances, they may be chained in vehicles that lack climate control, forced to stand in their own waste. Even when the animals are not in transit, they are forced to live in grim conditions. Again and again, USDA inspection reports show that animals are frequently deprived of clean water, fresh and nutritionally-appropriate food, clean living quarters, and even the most basic shelter from weather.

The travel vehicles used by circuses are small, dark, dank, dirty, and are often in a dangerous state of disrepair. Many circuses, including Carson & Barnes Circus, George Carden Circus, and Sterling & Reid Bros. Circus (now “Toby Tyler Circus”), have been cited under the AWA because splintering wood and sharp metal edges protruded into animals’ cages.

Travel itself can also be extraordinarily hazardous for animals in the circus. In one horrific incident, a 400-pound Syrian brown bear fell from a trailer while the Sterling & Reid Bros. Circus was driving on a freeway through New Orleans at night. The bear had been hit by the trailer and was dazed and bleeding from his mouth when motorists found him on the road. Traffic was halted for several hours while the bear was tranquilized and transported for treatment. The circus noticed that the bear was missing when they stopped for fuel 20 miles down the road; the bear was returned to Sterling & Reid the next day.

Although this incident may seem extraordinary, it dramatically illustrates the absurd cruelty and degradation involved in using wild animals as “props” in traveling shows.

Myth #4: Circuses use only “positive” training methods on animals.
Fact: Training is almost always based on intimidation and violence.

In the circus, the rule is that “the show must go on” — even if the animal "stars” are unwilling or unable to participate. Circuses demand obedience from the animals they exploit, and the training methods they use are largely based on breaking an animal’s will and beating or threatening an animal into submission. The demeaning tricks that animals are forced to perform, night after night, are frightening, unnatural, and even painful. In order to achieve the desired results, the standard industry practice is to use archaic, torturous devices to dominate and control animals much bigger and stronger than their trainers.

The bullhook (also called a “hook” or “ankus”) is perhaps the most notorious weapon in the trainer’s arsenal. A bullhook is a long, thick pole with a sharp metal hook attached to the end, and is used almost exclusively on elephants. Elephants have thick — but highly sensitive — skin. When hit with a bullhook, an elephant typically will scream, drop to his or her knees, and do everything he or she can to escape further blows. Bullhooks can cause serious, permanent injuries or even death.

USDA inspection reports and Congressional testimony from a former circus employee paint appalling, indelible images of the abuse animals suffer during circus “training.” In 2001, for example, the USDA cited Hawthorn Corporation (a company that leases elephants and tigers to circuses) for physically abusing elephants while touring with Sterling & Reid Circus. A federal inspector observed a handler gouge an elephant on the trunk with a bullhook, causing an open lesion, while another handler was seen “raking the back of another elephant several times with his hook during the performance.”

In addition to the bullhook, trainers use a multitude of objects to poke, prod, strike, shock, and beat animals. In one horrible case of abuse detailed in USDA documents in 1995, a worker with Hawthorn Corporation instructed an elephant, Hattie to “‘lay [sic] down’ and then beat Hattie with an ax handle. ... Trainers also used water and food deprivation and electric shock from a cattle prod on the elephants.” A Hawthorn worker was seen shocking an elephant “repeatedly for one-half hour in order to get the elephant to lay [sic] down and get up upon voice commands.”

Sterling & Reid was cited in 1999 by a USDA inspector who witnessed exotic cats being struck with a broken hockey stick with jagged ends. The inspector noted, “In order to shift one tiger into the arena, the animal was poked, prodded, and struck with poles. The lion was poked and prodded repeatedly while refusing to return to his platform. Eventually, he was struck across the face several times by the trainer in the ring. ... The use of food as an incentive was not attempted until after physical abuse failed to move the animal.”

Industry representatives frequently claim that circuses only use “positive reinforcement” in handling animals — and, indeed, this may be the style of interaction that audiences see in the ring and in carefully-controlled tours. But behind the scenes, a very different picture emerges. Common sense dictates that elephants don’t eagerly ride tricycles and that tigers don’t naturally jump through flaming hoops. And USDA inspection reports state how animals are made to perform such acts through violence, force, and intimidation.

Occasionally, as a result of reports and complaints, the government does take definitive action against abuse. In March 2004, the USDA removed a herd of elephants from John Cuneo and his Hawthorn Corporation, based on accusations of animal mistreatment and mishandling. The USDA reported that Hawthorn admitted guilt on 19 charges of violating the Animal Welfare Act, including failing to establish and maintain programs of veterinary care; failing to handle elephants in a manner that did not cause physical harm, unnecessary discomfort, behavioral stress, and trauma; and failing to handle elephants so as to ensure minimal risk of harm to the animals and the public. Sixteen circus elephants will be removed from Hawthorn’s Illinois facilities by August 2004 and will be sent to other homes. The company also agreed to pay a $200,000 fine. This action marks the first time that the U.S. government removed such a large number of animals from a circus-related company; animal advocates are hopeful that it will not be the last.

Myth #5: Circuses help conserve endangered species.
Fact: The exploitation of animals in circuses does not save animals in the wild.

Time and again, circuses that exploit animals make sweeping claims about the educational and conservational value of their shows. In truth, however, keeping wild animals in captivity and forcing them to perform unnatural tricks does nothing to reduce — or even to teach people in a meaningful way about — the threats endangered animals face in their native habitat. Upon examination, the circuses’ high-minded claims are shown to be disingenuous.

In an attempt to justify keeping endangered and threatened wild animals, such as elephants, tigers, and other species, in captivity, the circus industry claims that it provides a necessary service: preserving species through captive breeding. However, baby animals produced through captive breeding programs exist solely to enhance the circuses’ bottom line. None of the animals born through circuses’ captive breeding programs have ever been released into the wild; most are slated to become “replacement” performers. Captive breeding programs do nothing to address the real threats endangered animals face in the wild, such as poaching, trophy hunting, loss of habitat, and loss of prey.

Take the example of the “conservation” of white tigers. These animals, an anomaly in the wild, are perennially popular attractions in circuses. White tigers are Bengal tigers who have undergone a series of gene manipulation through captive breeding that results in the animals having white fur. All captive white tigers are believed to be inbred descendants of the last known wild white tiger, a male who was captured in India in 1951. This tiger was bred first to an orange female, then to their own white daughter.

Some animal experts believe that, as a result of such inbreeding, white tigers tend to be more unpredictable and dangerous than naturally-occurring orange tigers (it was a white tiger who seriously mauled Las Vegas performer Roy Horn during a stage show last October). Because of white tigers’ commercial draw, however, circuses, zoos, and the exotic “pet” industry continue inbreeding tigers under the guise of “conservation.” But the artificial propagation of a genetic mutation does nothing to help tigers of any stripe in the wild. It does, however, pull big crowds into the big top.

In the wild, native species are at risk due to environmental threats brought about by human behavior, not because the animals have difficulty breeding. The breeding of animals in captivity does little except draw ticket-buying crowds to see captive babies and genetic anomalies. While circuses line their pockets with money made by exploiting captive endangered species, wild animal populations continue to atrophy due to a lack of funding and support for enforcement of protection laws, educational programs, and habitat preservation in the animals’ native countries.

Sadly, circuses’ sham “conservation” efforts may soon get a boost from the federal government. At press time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was considering changing its interpretation of the Endangered Species Act to allow for expanded exploitation of endangered species from abroad, in the name of conservation. In addition to permitting both trophy and canned hunting, this revised policy would allow the capture and importation of foreign endangered animals to U.S. canned hunt facilities, circuses, zoos, and the exotic pet trade. The Bush administration claims that allowing such activities would enhance funding for foreign conservation programs. Opponents, including API, argue that this approach is fraught with dangers both to individual animals and to the species as a whole, and is likely to increase poaching and the illicit trafficking of imperiled animals. API will keep readers apprised of developments in this matter.

As for the “educational value” of circuses, it’s important to ask just what children (and adults) learn watching majestic animals chained, captive, and forced to perform unnatural acts. Circuses teach people to exploit animals, not to respect them. No research has shown that individuals attending circuses are particularly interested in the population status of a species or what steps are being taken to ensure its survival in the wild. In fact, many wildlife species, such as whales and sea turtles, enjoy a high level of public sympathy and concern despite the fact that they have never been used in traveling shows.

Clearly, the conservation and education claim made by circuses is merely a veiled attempt to justify the exploitation of animals for profit. Audiences attend circuses to be entertained, not educated. Circuses stage shows for commercial gain; their “conservation” claim is merely the noble-sounding means to that end.

Boycott the Big Top

When the circus comes to town, it doesn’t mean that animals need to be used and exploited. Circuses that employ only human performers are increasing in popularity, and offer families and communities the chance to be amazed and entertained in a cruelty-free manner.

When people turn away from circuses that exploit animals and attend animal-free circuses, their actions make a real difference, and help create a brighter future for wild animals. API is taking a leading role in the fight to end the use of animals in the circus. We know that with the help of concerned, compassionate people like you, the day will come when circuses that use animals will be seen as a cruel relic from a less enlightened time.

Stopping the Circus in YOUR Town

When the circus is coming to your town, there are some easy things you can do to help the animals and to raise public awareness about how animals in the circus suffer. Circus animals — caged, broken, and beaten — have little hope other than the actions of local advocates. They thank you for doing your part to banish big top cruelty!

Before the Show

  • First, contact API for a free circus activist packet, full of tips to help plan your campaign against the circus.
  • Find out which circus is coming to your area. If a “Shrine Circus” is scheduled, for example, the show will actually be put on by a specific circus that is sponsored by the Shriners, so it is helpful to learn which actual company is slated to perform. Then, read API’s fact sheet about that individual circus on our website. Send a copy of the fact sheet to your local news outlets to let them know what really goes on behind the scenes at the circus.
  • Learn which local businesses are sponsoring the show and call or send letters to the owners educating them about why they should not support circus cruelty. As a consumer, you have the power to influence merchant’s decisions.
  • Order free flyers from API that tell circus-goers all about “The Big Lie Under the Big Top.”
  • Write a letter to the editor describing the real treatment of circus animals. Newspapers often run pro-circus “fluff pieces” portraying circuses as wholesome family entertainment, so it is essential to tell the other side of the story.
  • If resources allow, run an anti-circus advertisement in your local paper. Sample ads are available from API. In addition, many cable networks will run a Public Service Announcement; API can help you place such an announcement on the air.
  • Round up a group of activists to distribute leaflets during circus performances. Send a press release to local media inviting them to cover the upcoming demonstration.

During Showtime

  • Find out when and where the animals are being unloaded and be there to witness any violations of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Read the summary of AWA Regulations on API’s website. Try to capture the process with video or still pictures, and report any suspected problems to API, so that we can work with the USDA and local animal control agencies to stop the mistreatment of animals in the circus, and to generate media coverage about this critical issue.
  • Distribute API’s flyers to people attending the show. Be sure to let them know about the beauty of animal-free circuses.
  • Attend the show and watch for any violations of the AWA, including physical abuse or performances by sick or injured animals. Report to API any mistreatment you witness.

After the Circus Departs

  • Approach local officials and ask them to join communities across the country in banning traveling animal acts. Contact API for assistance with passing local ordinances.
  • Write to the USDA, urging the agency to better protect animals used in circuses by increasing enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act.
    Urge circus sponsors to stop supporting cruelty, and instead to sponsor an animal-free circus.
  • Please see the Circus Campaign portion of this website for an extensive list of resources about circuses and how you can make a difference in the lives of performing animals.

Tell Ringling Bros. to Stop Exploiting Animals!

Now is the time to end the exploitation of animals in circuses. If you agree, please print out and sign this pledge reflecting your commitment to ending animal suffering and return it to API. We will collect signed pledges and deliver them to Ringling — letting them know just how many people prefer animal-free circuses. Send your completed pledge to:

API/Circus Pledge
P.O. Box 22505
Sacramento, CA 95822

API will send all pledges to Kenneth Feld, head of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Feel free to make copies to share with others!

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