Bears, elephants, tigers, and other animals do not voluntarily ride bicycles, stand on their heads, balance on balls, or jump through rings of fire. They don’t perform these and other difficult tricks because they want to; they perform them because they’re afraid of what will happen if they don’t.
For animals in circuses, there is no such thing as “positive reinforcement”—only varying degrees of punishment and deprivation. To force them to perform these meaningless and physically uncomfortable tricks, trainers use whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks, and other painful tools of the trade.
In the Ringling Bros. circus, elephants are beaten, hit, poked, prodded, and jabbed with sharp hooks, sometimes until bloody. Ringling breaks the spirit of elephants when they’re vulnerable babies who should still be with their mothers. Unsuspecting parents planning a family trip to the circus don’t know about the violent training sessions with ropes, bullhooks, and electric shock prods that elephants endure. Heartbreaking photos reveal how Ringling Bros. circus trainers cruelly force baby elephants to learn tricks, and it’s not through a reward system, as they claim.
Circuses easily get away with routine abuse because no government agency monitors training sessions. Undercover video footage of animal training sessions has shown that elephants are beaten with bullhooks and shocked with electric prods, big cats are dragged by heavy chains around their necks and hit with sticks, bears are whacked and prodded with long poles, and chimpanzees are kicked and hit with riding crops. Carson & Barnes trainers have even been documented using blowtorches on elephants.
Constant travel means that animals are confined to boxcars, trailers, or trucks for days at a time in extremely hot and cold weather, often without access to basic necessities such as food, water, and veterinary care. Elephants, big cats, bears, and primates are confined to cramped and filthy cages in which they eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and urinate—all in the same place.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus boasts that its three units travel more than 25,000 miles as the circus tours the country for 11 months each year. Ringling’s own documents reveal that on average, elephants are chained for more than 26 hours straight and are sometimes continually chained for as many as 60 to 100 hours. Tigers and lions usually live and travel in cages that provide barely enough room for the animals to turn around, often with two big cats crammed into a single cage. In July 2004, Clyde, a young lion traveling with Ringling, died in a poorly ventilated boxcar while the circus was crossing the Mojave Desert, where temperatures reached at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Clyde likely died a miserable death from heatstroke and dehydration. Previously, two tigers with Ringling injured themselves while attempting to escape from their cages in an overheated boxcar.
Frustrated by years of beatings, bullhooks, and shackles, some elephants snap. And when an elephant rebels against a trainer’s physical dominance, trainers cannot protect themselves—let alone the public.
In 1994, an elephant named Tyke killed her trainer and injured 12 spectators before being gunned down while running terrified through downtown Honolulu (she was shot almost 100 times). In 1992, Officer Blayne Doyle was forced to shoot and kill Janet, an elephant who charged out of the Great American Circus arena with five children on her back.
In more than 35 dangerous incidents since 2000, elephants have bolted from circuses, run amok through streets, crashed into buildings, attacked members of the public, and killed and injured handlers.
In speaking before members of Congress about the dangers of elephant rampages, Doyle lamented, “I have discovered, much to my alarm, that once an elephant goes out of control, nothing can be done. It is not a predictable or preventable accident. The only thing that can be done—and even this is a danger to the public—is to get a battery of police officers in with heavy weapons and gun the elephant down.”
Because of concerns about animal mistreatment and public safety, a growing number of communities are banning or restricting the use of animals in circuses.
We applaud trapeze artists, jugglers, clowns, tightrope walkers, and acrobats, but let’s leave animals in peace. The Latest Shows on Earth—Cirque du Soleil, the New Pickle Family Circus, Cirque Éloize, and others—are exciting and innovative circuses that dazzle audiences without animal acts. Click here for a list of animal-free circuses.
What You Can Do
- When the circus comes to town, organize a demonstration to inform the public that demeaning stunts performed by animals in the ring are the result of behind-the-scenes bullhook beatings and other abusive training methods. Let your local news outlet know about the suffering of animals used in circuses.
- For detailed information about specific circuses, including U.S. Department of Agriculture citations and dangerous incidents, click here.
- Start a campaign to amend the cruelty-to-animals ordinance in your community so that it includes language forbidding the use of bullhooks and other manual, mechanical, and chemical devices intended to cause pain and suffering.
- Most importantly, boycott all circuses that use animals and choose animal-friendly entertainment options instead.
- For ideas on other ways that you can help, check out “Steps to Take When the Circus Comes to Town.“