The very word "circus" brings to mind vivid images of amazing acrobats, comedic clowns ... and exotic animals. But unlike the human entertainers, animals do not choose the circus life; they are kept in captivity and forced to take part in the show. Circuses that use animals are aggressively promoted by the circus industry as safe, fun, wholesome family entertainment. This couldn't be farther from the truth. After the circus industry's glitter and glamour has settled, the animals remain involuntary participants in a degrading spectacle, performing not because they want to, but because they are forced to.
Though more people are beginning to realize the truth about the big top, many continue to attend animal-circuses. Elephants, tigers, lions, other big cats, bears, primates, exotic reptiles, and other animals are still subjected to cramped, unnatural living conditions; travel for most of the year; cruel training methods that use violence, fear, and intimidation; and exhibition in front of loud crowds under bright lights.
Despite an increased public awareness and better protections for animals on other issues, little has changed over the years in the way that animals in circuses are treated. Through this site we seek to educate the public and raise awareness about the treatment of circus animals. The information that follows outlines the specific problems with circuses that use animals, and follows up with what can be done to ensure that circuses in the future will consist of only willing, human participants, leaving exotic animals wild and free.
Elephants, tigers, and other circus animals are wild animals. Whether they were captured in their native lands or bred in captivity, whether or not they appear docile or at ease around humans, they remain wild at heart. Wild animals used in circuses originate from different parts of the globe, and have unique and specific needs for diet, health, vet care, social interaction, stimulation, exercise and movement, living environment, climate, etc. Yet circus animals are all trained similarly, and all live and travel together under the same conditions. It is impossible for the unique needs of every animal to be met. Worse yet, outright neglect and mistreatment of animals in the circus is rampant throughout the industry.
"Performing" animals spend most of their days in boxcars, cages, or chains, in lives very different from those they would naturally live. Wild elephants, for example, live in large, social herds and walk up to 25 miles every day. Tigers, lions, and other animals found in circuses are also always on the move in their native habitats. In contrast, in the circus wild animals are confined to travel trucks or trains about 300 days of each year. To deprive these creatures their freedom to roam and to engage in other instinctual behaviors is inherently cruel.
Over long distance and days at a time, forced to stand in their own waste, animals may be caged or chained, often in vehicles that lack temperature control. You could pass a semi-truck on the highway and never suspect its cargo is elephants and tigers. Many circus travel vehicles are small, dark, filthy, and often in a dangerous state of disrepair. Circuses are repeatedly cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Animal Welfare Act for trailers that have splintering wood and sharp, protruding metal pieces near animals' cages. Animals are born, injured, and die while on the road.
The circus industry would have us believe that the animals in the ring have been exposed their entire lives exclusively to positive-reinforcement training methods. While the show is in progress, the audience may indeed see animals receiving food rewards, praise, and positive feedback. Observant audience members will also notice bullhooks and other devices of domination, and the USDA has documented trainers striking elephants and large cats during performances. What the circus industry doesn't want anyone to see is what happens behind the scenes, where the object is to initially "break" the animals and trained them throughout their lives so they will perform unnatural tricks.
Common sense tells us that a 7,000-pound elephant or a tiger with 3-inch-long razor-sharp teeth would naturally dominate a human being, and that he could not be forced into doing something he does not want to do. But the circus maxim is "The show must go on," and so it does, whether or not the animals are willing or even able to participate. The tricks that animals must perform are unnatural, frightening, even painful; but they must perform. Only a training method tougher than the animals could command such obedience from them.
The bullhook (also called a "hook" or "ankus") is perhaps the most notorious tool in the animal trainer's arsenal. Used on elephants, the bullhook is a long, thick pole with a sharp metal hook on one end. Though elephant skin is thick, it is also very sensitive. During training with this device, it is not uncommon for an elephant to scream and drop to his/her knees to try to avoid the blows.
In addition to the ankus for stabbing or beating, other training tools and methods used to initially "break" and train animals throughout their lives include lengthy chaining, food and water deprivation, use of whips, clubs and blunt objects, and electric prods.
Abuse isn't always so blatant, and is often the result of negligence through inaction. USDA inspection reports read like broken records, constantly revealing animals who are deprived of clean water and fresh and proper food, clean living quarters, and even the most basic shelter from weather. Often a veterinarian is not on site, or local vets are not knowledgeable about the unique medical needs of exotic animals, and so sick or injured animals may go untreated, or be treated incorrectly. Circuses are often cited by the USDA for failure to keep veterinary records, for moldy or rancid food and no water, for storing chemicals near the food supply, and for stocking expired medications.
- Article in Summer 2004 Animal Issues
- Specific Circus Fact Sheets
The combination of captive wild animals, chaotic crowds, and the stress of training and constant travel and exhibition is a recipe for disaster. When they are so far removed from their natural environments, it is of little wonder that some captive wild animals are literally driven mad by the experience and subsequently rebel in escapes and rampages that cause major property damage and seriously injure people.
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 United States, 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.
For more incidents, see
Besides compromising public safety, exposure to animals in the circus, particularly elephants, can also be hazardous to human health. In the circus setting, tuberculosis (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.
for Disease Control: "TB Infection as a Zoonotic Disease:
Transmission Between Humans and Elephants."
How does exploiting animals for profit in circuses help conserve animals in the wild? It doesn't. Despite what the circus industry would like people to believe, it is clear that a tiger jumping through a flaming hoop in an arena in an American city has nothing to do with the plight of wild tigers in their native lands. While elephants are made to balance on stepstools and do headstands across the U.S., wild elephants continue to lose habitat and fall before poachers' guns.
Although it is true that some circuses breed endangered animals in captivity, the fact is that captive breeding of circus animals serves only to draw crowds to see baby animals, and to add more animals to the circus and exotic animal industries. None of the animals produced through captive breeding programs have ever been released into the wild. 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.
While the big top is no place for wild animals, life in the wild is becoming more dangerous as well. With serious conservation efforts, elephants, tigers, lions, and other animals can be assured a safe continued existence in their native lands.
- What to look for in an Ecotour
- Ecotours: Wild Land Adventures
- African Propoor Tourism Development Centre