The history of the modern circus starts with a man named Philip Astley. He became a cavalry officer who created a modern amphitheater to show off horse riding tricks in Lambeth, London in April 1768. He would be the first to create a space where all acts, including clowns, could be brought together to perform a show. He used a 42-foot diameter ring for his tricks, and that has been the standard size used by the circus ever since.
Circuses are much older than that, with the Circus Maximum a critical staple of Rome during the Roman Empire. The final version of it could seat over 250,000 people. After the fall of Rome, large centers for mass entertainment fell out of favor. The industry relied on animal trainers, showmen, and itinerant performers who would perform at local fairs.
It was the American format that brought exotic animals into the circus industry. By the late 19th century, lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, and other animals from overseas would travel the United States, performing shows on a large scale with zoological exhibits as a marketing point. When animal activists began protesting this form of entertainment in the 1960s, many circuses would go out of business or merge with other companies.
List of the Pros of Having Animals in Circuses
1. It offers another avenue to consider for breeding programs.
Many of the circus animals that traditionally tour with the show are on the endangered species list. Since they are bred in captivity, the actions will increase the odds of survival for the overall species. Banning them from performing would decrease the number that are under our protection, which could increase the chance for extinction. That’s why many owners are encouraged to stop taking animals from the wild for their shows and to work with others to improve populations.
2. There are specific guidelines and regulations that must be followed.
It is illegal to euthanize an animal on the endangered species list unless there is a specific reason for taking that action. Circuses that operate in the United States must also report deaths to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Department of Agriculture will routinely inspect programs to ensure compliance with the current regulations as well. Although some companies do not offer reasonable care to the animals in their circus, there are organizations like the Carson and Barnes Circus that support their own herd of retired elephants on land in Oklahoma.
Managing exotic animals is tricky. Even the companies with sterling reputations can struggle to manage them when they decide it is time to be free of their confines.
3. There can be educational opportunities with a well-run circus.
The problem with many animal-based circuses is that they run on tight budgets and take shortcuts on the care they must provide. Only 4% of them get to live a life outside of cages and chains when living in this situation. Some of them travel for 11 months of the year in trailers or railroad cars with no climate control. Most itinerary stops are not inspected even though there are USDA minimum standards of care in the United States.
When the circus is run ethically and animals can interact in positive ways with humans, then there is an educational benefit to consider. Profit cannot be the primary consideration for this advantage to become available. That’s why it is so rare to see this opportunity – but it does exist if you’re willing to look for a circus that behaves appropriately.
4. Circuses are just as capable as zoos for caring for animals.
The Radford Report in the UK found in 2006 after a six-month study of circuses, with the full participation of proponents and critics of this debate, that they were just as capable as any other captive environment to meet the welfare needs of animals in their care. This conclusion brought the organizations closer to that of zoos from a legal perspective, especially when an 18-month study sponsored by the RSPCA found that animals don’t suffer stress during healthy training, performance, or transportation.
5. Most circus trainers act ethically and responsibly with their animals.
There are plenty of horror stories about the abuse of circus animals if you go looking for them. Numerous countries have based welfare acts that cover the treatment of animals, making their abuse a punishable crime that can lead to jail time. Only a small fraction of the people who care for these animals use abusive practices. Most of them are highly educated people who are specifically trained to provide the best care possible. It is a much different tale when you look at Indian organizations that provide elephant shows to tourists.
List of the Cons of Having Animals in Circuses
1. Creating jobs for humans has moral implications when it is at the expense of animals.
There are economic benefits to consider when animals perform at the circus. Their efforts create jobs for trainers, handlers, dancers, entertainers, and many others who might not be able to use their creative efforts in other ways. The animals would often be overworked, beaten until they were willing to submit, and forced to live in confined conditions while trying to balance below average food supplies and irregular feeding schedules. This disadvantage is one of the primary reasons why the largest circus companies stopped using elephants and other animals in their shows – ultimately forcing some of them to go out of business.
2. Many of the animals used in circuses are bred in captivity.
The animals that you see performing in the circus were usually bred in captivity after the initial captures took place. That means they spend most of their lives in close contact with humans. It is a lifestyle that is far from what their natural environment would be, creating untold stresses on the animals that only increase because they’re kept in rigorous confinement. Tigers, camels, lions, and other animals must endure the issues of training, transportation, and performances on a regular basis while being fearful of the natural instincts that drive them.
3. Animals learn how to do tricks through fear instead of encouragement.
Trainers at the circus often use whips, bullhooks, and other objects that inflict pain as the primary way to train animals to do tricks. Big cats do what they’re told to avoid pain. Elephants in this situation would sometimes be hit with batons with a sharp metal hook until they bleed to force them to do dangerous stunts for their body size, like standing on their heads or perching on small pedestals. Then they go back into a cage that has barely enough space for them to take a step in any direction. Is it any wonder why some of them eventually lash out at people?
4. Constant travel exposes the animals to heat exhaustion.
During the summer of 1997, an elephant named Heather died of heat exhaustion while traveling through New Mexico. Police officers found the animal in a trailer in a hotel parking lot. There were 10 additional animals removed from that container, which was noted as being “poorly vented,” and turned over to the custody of the local zoo. When officials found Heather, they estimated her weight to be 2,400 pounds. She was six years old, so she was almost 1,600 pounds off of her ideal weight.
The company responsible for Heather also got in trouble when workers beat a baby elephant named Mickey in front of a live audience. He simply refused to do a trick and wanted to leave the arena. Unless government officials follow up inspections, nothing gets done to protect the animals from abusive situations.
5. Animals in circuses develop abnormal behaviors.
Because animals must become broken before they can perform tricks or stunts for entertainment, the combination of uncomfortable positions, potential abuse, and small cages or enclosures can lead to abnormal behavior patterns. It is not unusual for them to become depressed and despondent in a slow, downward spiral that can eventually lead to self-harm behaviors or attacks against humans. If you see animals who start swaying as they stand, bob their heads frequently, or have incessant pacing, then that is an individual who requires an immediate professional intervention to improve their health.
Why do circus animals become despondent under these circumstances? It is because they are usually denied access to everything that will give their life some meaning. There are very few chances for them to run around, play, or socialize with others of their species.
6. When confined animals finally snap, they can cause significant harm.
During an August 1994 performance at the Neal Blaisdell Center in Kaka’ako, HI, Tyke the elephant had finally had enough. She was an African bush elephant from Mozambique who performed with Circus International out of Honolulu. She would kill her trainer, seriously injure her groomer, and then bolt from the arena to run through the streets of the city. She was on the loose for over 30 minutes while officials tried to calm her down.
There were two other incidents that involved an elephant named Tyke that were attributed to her in 1993 as well. According to law enforcement documents from Canadian and American officials, a single tusk African elephant, also of the same name, was beaten in public to the point where she was screaming and bending down on three legs to avoid being hit. Even when the handler walked by her after the incident, she would scream and veer away.
7. Companies get to continue operating despite frequent violations.
Proponents might point to the Carson and Barnes retirement farm in Oklahoma as a way to be responsible with animal management, but the company does have more than 100 documented violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. That means inspectors have found that they are failing to provide basic necessities to the animals, such as shelter from the elements, clean water, a minimum amount of space, and veterinary care. Animal-free circuses are thriving, so consider going to one of them for entertainment value instead of watching animals perform useless tricks.
8. There are health risks to consider with some circus animals.
Circus elephants are known to carry tuberculous, which is highly contagious for humans as a bacterial disease. A review of public records shows that most circuses have a history of using animals that tested positive for TB in their performances, which means there has been a persistent threat to public health. A circus is not required to carry emergency euthanasia equipment either, which means it is up to law enforcement to deal with a loose animal instead of the caretakers. This disadvantage is one of the primary reasons why circuses around the world have been responsible for over 100 injuries and several fatalities.
9. Times have changed.
There was a time, even not that long ago, when a circus may have represented the only time a child received exposure to wild animals. Kids can now learn about them in early school programs, watch documentaries about them on Animal Planet, and interact with learning lessons online that make the experiences feel real. Seeing how animals are treated in the circus today, even if it is only as part of a zoological display, works to counteract that message. When would someone ever see a bear wearing a costume while spinning balls with its hind feet? Or watch an elephant balance on a ball as it leads its pace to a water source in the savannah?
Animal-based circuses portray an inaccurate image of animals live and act. This unrealistic context creates a disconnect between nature and humanity, perpetuating the notion that it is acceptable and enjoyable to exploit animals for our own entertainment.
There are plenty of circuses that can provide people with entertainment while providing the animals in their care a safe and healthy life. When there are regimented food and medication schedules that get followed to the letter, then their health can be supported in ways that may not be possible in the wild. The key to a successful experience is to provide the animals with enough space to live comfortably while traveling, and then providing an enclosure that simulates their natural habitat with as much space as possible.
Even then, any animal that is forced to do tricks as a way to generate applause is one that is being potentially abused for the sake of human income. Some of them are taken away from their families and everything they know, even if they’re born in captivity.
It is time to rethink the idea of having any animals in a circus. These events may have been educational and exotic in the past, but it is also a challenge to escape the possibilities of cruelty in this atmosphere.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.