Behind the scenes, elephant trainer Tim Frisco instructs would-be trainers how to dominate elephants and make them perform circus tricks. “Sink that hook into ’em. When you hear that screaming, then you know you got their attention.” An elephant trumpets in agony as Frisco’s bullhook, with its sharp metal hook and spiked end, tears through her sensitive skin.
The fact is, animals do not naturally ride bicycles, stand on their heads, balance on balls, or jump through rings of fire. To force them to perform these confusing and physically uncomfortable tricks, trainers use whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks, and other painful tools of the trade.
Using animals in circuses is an unnecessary and inhumane practice that's harmful to both the animals and the public. Unlike the human performers who choose to work in circuses, exotic animals are forced to take part in the show. They are involuntary actors in a degrading, unnatural spectacle.
While many people associate the circus with "safe, wholesome, family fun" — an association promoted aggressively by the circus PR machine — the truth is much darker. Government inspection reports reveal ongoing mistreatment of animals in circuses, as well as failures to provide the basic minimal standards of care required by law. Animals used in circuses have been injured and killed, and have injured and killed humans.
Circuses that exploit animals make lofty claims about their "educational" value and their contributions to "conservation." But the real message that these circuses send to children is that it's acceptable to abuse animals for amusement and profit.
And the conservation claims made by many circuses are merely veiled attempts to justify the exploitation of animals for commercial gain. Endangered animals born in circus "conservation" programs have never been released into the wild — they are doomed, instead, to life in captivity.
Four Reasons You Should Not Attend Animal Circuses
1. The care and treatment of animals in circuses is shameful:
The tricks that animals are forced to perform, night after night, are frightening, unnatural, and even painful. Standard circus industry practice is to use bullhooks and other objects to poke, prod, strike, shock, and hit animals in order to "train" them — all for a few moments of human amusement.
Circus representatives often claim that only "positive reinforcement" is used in handling animals — and this may indeed be the style of interaction that audiences see in the ring and in carefully-controlled public tours. The industry also claims that it only trains animals to do the types of tricks they might naturally perform in their native habitat. But common sense dictates that elephants in the wild don't eagerly stand on their heads and that tigers don't naturally jump through hoops.
Animals in circuses spend about 11 months of the year traveling. For thousands of hours, over long distances, they may be chained while not performing, transported in vehicles that lack climate control, and forced to stand or lie in their own waste.
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. In addition to the physical mistreatment that the animals face, depriving these creatures of the freedom to roam and to engage in other instinctual behaviors is inherently cruel.
2. Animals in circuses pose threats to public health and safety:
Animals in circuses are forced into lives far different from the ones nature intended. The conflict between their instincts and the harsh realities of captivity — as well as training methods that utilize violence, fear, and intimidation — cause wild animals tremendous amounts of stress. It is little wonder that some animals literally are driven mad and rebel in rampages that injure and kill people.
Animals in circuses have escaped from their enclosures and freely roamed outside the property from where they are performing. Escaped circus animals pose serious threats to public safety. In addition to causing major property damage, they can place local residents at risk from potential injury.
Elephants in the circus may carry tuberculosis (TB), and can infect humans with the bacterial disease. Public records show that many circuses have a history of tuberculosis in their elephants, and that many have used TB-positive elephants in public performances.
3. Federal and state laws do not adequately regulate circuses:
It might be reasonable to assume that legal safeguards are in place to protect animals in circuses. But while some regulatory protections do exist, these regulations are neither sufficiently specific nor adequately enforced. Circuses and traveling shows must comply with the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and any applicable state and/or local laws — all of which are minimal at best and do not provide adequate protections against abuse and mistreatment.
Every major circus that uses animals has been cited for violating the Animal Welfare Act. See our fact sheets about specific circuses.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which enforces the AWA) have repeatedly ignored obvious physical trauma to animals, eyewitness accounts of mistreatment, and sworn testimony from former circus employees who report mistreatment of elephants.
4. Circuses do not conserve endangered species
Endangered animals born in circus "conservation" programs have never been released into the wild; most are slated to become "replacement" performers. Conservation is used as a cover: 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, and the bred animals were never meant to be released into the wild.
In the wild, native species are at risk due to environmental threats brought about by human behavior, not because the animals have difficulty breeding. While circuses line their pockets with money from the ticket prices, 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 lands.
Despite circuses' high-minded claims, they are entertainment, not education. Watching wild animals perform unnatural tricks does not teach our children respect or appreciation for animals, nor does it help animals in the wild. Circuses teach children that it's acceptable to exploit and mistreat animals for amusement. Further, no research has shown that attending circuses increases public concern about the population status of a species or what steps are being taken to ensure its survival in the wild