Although some children dream of running away to join the circus, it is a safe bet that most animals forced to perform in circuses dream of running away from the circus. Colorful pageantry disguises the fact that animals used in circuses are captives who are forced—under threat of punishment—to perform confusing, uncomfortable, repetitious, and often painful acts. Circuses would quickly lose their appeal if more people knew about the cruel methods used to train the animals as well as the cramped confinement, unacceptable travel conditions, and poor treatment that they endure—not to mention what happens to them when they “retire.”
A Life Far Removed From Home
Because circuses are constantly traveling from city to city, animals’ access to basic necessities such as food, water, and veterinary care is often inadequate. The animals, most of whom are quite large and naturally active, are forced to spend most of their lives in the cramped, barren cages and trailers used to transport them, where they have only enough room to stand and turn around. Most animals are allowed out of their cages only during the short periods when they must perform. Elephants are kept in leg shackles that prevent them from taking more than one step in any direction. The minimum requirements of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) are routinely ignored.
The lives of baboons, chimpanzees, and other primates used in circuses are a far cry from those of their wild relatives, who live in large, close-knit communities and travel together for miles each day across forests, savannahs, and hills. Primates are highly social, intelligent, and caring animals who suffer when deprived of companionship. Like all animals used in entertainment, primates do not perform unless they are forced to—often by inflicting beatings and imposing solitary confinement. After watching video footage of baboons in a traveling circus called “Baboon Lagoon,” Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research in Kenya, said, “[T]raining most baboons to do tricks of the sort displayed is not trivial … it is highly likely that it required considerable amounts of punishment and intimidation.”1
During the off-season, animals used in circuses may be housed in traveling crates or barn stalls— some are even kept in trucks. Such interminable confinement has harmful physical and psychological effects on animals. These effects are often indicated by what are called “abnormal repetitive behaviors” (ARB), such as head-bobbing, swaying, and pacing.2
The tricks that animals are forced to perform—such as when bears balance on balls, apes ride motorcycles, and elephants stand on two legs—are physically uncomfortable and behaviorally unnatural. The whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks, and other tools used during circus acts are reminders that the animals are being forced to perform. These “performances” teach audiences nothing about how animals behave under normal circumstances.
Beaten Into Submission
Physical punishment has always been the standard training method for animals in circuses. Animals are beaten, shocked, and whipped to make them perform—over and over again—tricks that make no sense to them. The AWA allows the use of bullhooks, whips, electrical shock prods, or other devices by circus trainers. Trainers drug some animals to make them “manageable” and surgically remove the teeth and claws of others.
Video footage shot during a PETA undercover investigation of Carson & Barnes Circus showed Carson & Barnes’ animal-care director, Tim Frisco, as he viciously attacked, yelled and cursed at, and shocked endangered Asian elephants. Frisco instructed other elephant trainers to beat the elephants with a bullhook as hard as they could and to sink the sharp metal bullhook into the animals’ flesh and twist it until they screamed in pain. The videotape also showed a handler who used a blowtorch to remove elephants’ hair as well as chained elephants and caged bears who exhibited stereotypic behaviors caused by mental distress.
Cole Bros. Circus, formerly known as “Clyde Beatty–Cole Bros. Circus,” has been cited repeatedly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for animal welfare violations. According to congressional testimony given by former Beatty-Cole elephant keeper Tom Rider, “[I]n White Plains, N.Y., when Pete did not perform her act properly, she was taken to the tent and laid down, and five trainers beat her with bullhooks.” Rider also told officials that “[a]fter my three years working with elephants in the circus, I can tell you that they live in confinement and they are beaten all the time when they don’t perform properly.”3
Former Ringling Bros. employees reported that elephants were routinely abused and violently beaten with bullhooks. Archele Hundley, who was an animal trainer with Ringling Bros., says that she worked with the company for three months and quit after she allegedly saw a handler ram a bullhook into an elephant’s ear for refusing to lie down. Ringling Bros. “believes that if they can keep these animals afraid, they can keep them submissive,” Hundley said. “This is how they train their employees to handle these animals.”4
In 2009, PETA recorded Ringling Bros. employees for many months and in numerous U.S. states. Eight employees, including the head elephant trainer and the animal superintendent, were videotaped backstage repeatedly hitting elephants in the head, trunk, ears, and other sensitive body parts with bullhooks and other cruel training devices just before the animals would enter the arena for performances. A tiger trainer was videotaped beating tigers during dress rehearsals. In lieu of a USDA hearing, Feld Entertainment, Inc. (the parent company of Ringling Bros.), agreed to pay an unprecedented $270,000 fine for violations of the AWA that allegedly occurred between June 2007 and August 2011.5
In 2015, Ringling announced that it would phase out elephant acts and retire the animals, but in 2017, citing a “dramatic drop” in ticket sales, the owner announced that the circus would shut down for good.6,7 The final performance for Ringling was in 2017.8 In 2022, Feld Entertainment announced that the circus would return in the fall of 2023 with a focus “on connections between the performers, and the audience.”9
These intelligent captive animals sometimes snap under the pressure of constant abuse. Others make their feelings abundantly clear when they get a chance. Flora, an elephant who had been forced to perform in a circus and was later moved to the Miami Zoo, attacked and severely injured a zookeeper in front of visitors.10 As Florida police officer Blayne Doyle—who shot 47 rounds into Janet, an elephant who ran amok with three children on her back at the Great American Circus in Palm Bay—noted, “I think these elephants are trying to tell us that zoos and circuses are not what God created them for … but we have not been listening.”11
What You Can Do
As more people become aware of the cruelty involved in forcing animals to perform, circuses that use animals are finding fewer places to set up their big tops. The use of animals in entertainment has already been restricted or banned in cities across the U.S. and in countries worldwide. For instance, Bolivia, Greece, Israel, Peru, and Sweden have banned the use of all animals in circuses, and Britain has prohibited the use of wild animals in traveling circuses.12,13
Take your family to see only animal-free circuses, such as Cirque du Soleil. PETA can provide you with literature to pass out to patrons if a circus that uses animals comes to your town. Find out about state and local animal protection laws, and report any suspected violations to authorities. Contact PETA for information on ways to get an animal-display ban passed in your area.
1Robert Sapolsky, letter to PETA, June 2004.
2G. Mason et al., “Why and How Should We Use Environmental Enrichment To Tackle Stereotypic Behaviour?” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 102(2007): 163–188.
3Tom Rider, testimony, legislative hearing on H.R. 2929, 13 June 2000.
4Ira Kantor, “Bill Would Outlaw Hooks Used on Elephants,” The Milford Daily News 17 Oct. 2007.
5Leigh Remizowski, “USDA Fines Ringling Bros. Circus Over Treatment of Animals,” CNN.com, 29 Nov. 2011.
6Richard Perez-Pena, “Ringling Brothers Circus Dropping Elephants From Act,” The New York Times, 5 Mar. 2015.
7Tamara Lush, “Ringling Bros. Circus To Close after 146 Years,” Associated Press, 15 Jan. 2017.
8Greg Toppo, “Curtain Falls On Final Ringling Bros. Circus Performance,” USA Today, 22 May 2017.
9Yaseen Shah,”‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is being ‘reimagined’ — without the animals,” Yahoo Finance, 24 June 2022.
10NBC 6 News Team, “Elephant Who Attacked Handler Was Circus Star,” NBC6.net, 17 Dec. 2002.
11Louis Sahagun, “Elephants Pose Giant Dangers,” Los Angeles Times 11 Oct. 1994.
12Sydney Azari, “Greece Bans Animal Circuses,” Bikya Masr 10 Feb. 2012.
13Fred Attewill, “Travelling Circuses Banned From Using Wild Animals in Shows,” Metro 1 Mar. 2012.