Society for the Advancement of Animal Wellbeing

- Protecting Animals and Conserving the Environment

Cruelty at the circus


Why, in this advanced and civilized age, is it still deemed amusing to abuse another living and sentient being for entertainment and in fact bring our children along to watch the inhumane spectacle?

Dr. Desmond Morris, anthropologist, animal behaviorist and author once said "The idea that it is funny to see wild animals coerced into acting like clumsy humans, or thrilling to see powerful beasts reduced to cringing cowards by a whip cracking trainer is primitive and medieval. It stems from the old idea that we are superior to other species and have the right to hold dominion over them."

The life of any circus animal is agonizingly cruel and stressful. For most of their lives they will be confined to small cages and transported thousands of miles as the circus moves from city to city. Life on the road means that it is impossible to get adequate food, water, exercise or veterinary care. Indeed most circuses operate for nearly 50 weeks of the year; the weather varies from extremely hot to freezing cold.


Cruelty under the Big Top

Circus animals are usually transported in the backs of trucks, in small cages in which they spend most of their life. With barely enough room they sleep, eat and defecate in the same small confined area, day in and day out.

With no one to socialize with or any mental stimulation or physical exercise the animals often go insane with boredom and thus exhibit behaviors seen in many abused animals such as head rocking, repetitive movement and chewing their own limbs.

Often they fall sick from the lack of exercise and the unhygienic conditions. These wild animals are extremely intelligent and social and are used to roaming free in the jungles and savannahs of Africa and Asia, not being imprisoned in a metal cage.

An array of animals are used in shows and circuses including parrots, ducks, alligators, snakes, camels, lamas, hoses, dogs, cats, elephants, rhinos, hippos and even polar bears.


Each animal has specific and special needs and conditions which are not met by the seasonal and unskilled circus workers. Elephants will spend most of their time chained by the foot only being able to move one step forwards and back, 90% or more of their time is spent like, in the wild they will roam in family herds up to 25 miles per day.

Horses will spend 23 hours of the day in a specialized box in which the animal can not even turn around and big cats will spend 99% of their time in cages which are only just bigger than the animal itself.

The acts they perform are completely unnatural such as bears riding bicycles, tigers jumping through hoops of flames and elephants balancing on a stool or doing a head stand. How are these wild animals trained to do such painful, awkward and confusing feats? It is not as some would like to believe by positive reinforcement otherwise the animal tamers would be holding bags of treats instead of whips and sticks. We will now look at some of the animals forced to perform in circus acts and their inhumane treatment.


Traveling in family units, constantly looking out for each other and walking free in the plains of Africa, elephants have held a special place in the hearts of humans for centuries. However the treatment of these animals for entertainment is nothing short of extreme slavery, debasement and exploitation.

The elephants used in circuses around the world are usually obtained by capturing young or baby elephants from the wild. The elephants are chased in cars and separated from their mothers; the baby will then be netted and shot with a tranquilizer gun. This kidnapping is extremely stressful for both the mother and family that have lost the child as well as for the infant now separated from the security of its family. As young as one year old the elephants is shipped to the country were it will be sold. The elephant may therefore have to spend months, all alone in a dark box on board a ship. This is just the beginning of his ordeal.

When the elephant first arrives at the circus he must be “broken in” by his trainers. Tethered down by his legs the poor baby elephant will be subjected to routine beatings and torture in order to break his spirit and thus subdue him to the will of the trainer, this process may last for a month or longer. The elephant trainer will use electric prods, sticks and chains to beat the elephant in to learning new tricks that are not only dangerous but are extremely harmful to these gentle giants physical well being.

Elephants by nature prefer to have a solid footing and to be on the ground, they naturally fear being unbalanced or standing on unstable stools or boxes. So for them to perform the trick of balancing on one leg on a stool or doing a hand stand or head stand, the fear they must feel from the trainer must be greater than the fear they naturally have from being in such a perverse situation. The main tool of torture used to instill this fear is called a “bullhook” or “ankus” which is a metal or wooden stick that has a sharp spike at its end.

The bullhook is used to coerce the elephant in to performing and rehearsing. The spike is ripped in to the skin of the elephant and twisted until it screams in pain. Most often the spikes will be used on the most sensitive parts of the animals which are under the chin, around the feet, behind the ears, on the face, around the eyes and inside the mouth. The trainers will also prod the animals inside the ear or anus.

In the ring in front of crowds the spike of the bullhook will be hidden with sparkling tassels and ribbons. If the animals do not perform well then they will be beaten as punishment. After the show the animal will be told to lie down then the trainers will beat the animal until bleeding, this is a standard methodology used for training animals in the industry.

Mr. George Lewis a former trainer at a famous circus the Ringling Brothers gave the following description of Sadie the elephant’s treatment. “Sadie just could not grasp what we were trying to show her. In frustration she attempted to run out of the ring. We brought her back and began to punish her for being so stupid. We stopped suddenly, and looked at each other, unable to speak. Sadie was crying like a human being. She lay there on her side, the tears streaming down her face and sobs racking her huge body.”

The tricks

 Let’s now look at some of the tricks that the elephants are forced to perform. Common tricks such as holding the tail of another animal can potentially damage the spinal cord of the elephant that has its tail held especially if too much force is used. Balancing acts cause stress in the elephants which may lead to aggression or the creature may slip and injure itself causing knee and leg problems or worse.

When elephants pretend to dance to music by thrashing there head from side to side this can cause nerve and muscle damage in the trunk and even cause trunk paralysis and neck sprains. Elephants standing on their hind legs cause their anal area to swell which eventually leads to painful and debilitating hernias.

Doing headstands and handstands puts an exorbitant amount of pressure on the front legs and neck and may cause spinal, neck and leg injuries. Under such abhorrent treatment far removed from natural conditions many animals die or lose their mental equilibrium some even go on a rampage and inadvertently injure the trainers or innocent bystanders.



Big cats

Big cats such as lions and tigers are usually caught from the wild or are reared from animals that the circus already owns. Big cats are used to roaming around their own territory which may be more than 2,000 square miles in area. They swim, run, climb trees and sunbathe.

The life of a circus cat is far from that which nature intended and is thus inherently cruel and demeaning to this great king of the jungle. For almost all of the time the tigers and lions are kept in beast wagons which are used for the transport of the animals from town to town in the back of a truck. Theses cages measure a mere 4 foot by 6 foot by 5 foot which is hardly big enough for them to turn their big strong bodies. They are not given a constant supply of water and so are often left thirsty and hungry.

These Kings of the jungle often perform acrobatic tricks such as jumping from barrels balancing on pipes and leaping through rings of fire. They have a strong instinctive aversion to fire, so what makes these powerful predators so submissive? The answer and the key lies in the severe and constant psychological and physical punishment which is mercilessly meted out to these poor creatures, day after day. Of course some of the cats sustain severe burns from jumping through flames, the injuries often go untreated.

From the beginning these animals are chained to their podiums and with ropes tied around their necks they are chocked and forcefully pinned down in order to comply. Beatings with whips, chains and metal poles are a common tool of the tiger training trade. They may also be drugged to keep them sedate and manageable whilst some will have their teeth and claws removed in painful procedures, which are usually not carried out by veterinary surgeons. These proud animals thus live pitiful lives of confinement, abuse, neglect and humiliation at the hands of the circus workers.


Bears too can often be seen under the big top riding bikes, wearing funny clothes, balancing balls and clowning around. These beautiful beings are often found in forests and enjoy foraging for food. But again to get a wild untamed animal to act in such an unnatural way requires massive amounts of fear, intimidation and violence.

For example to get a bear to stand on its hind legs like a human throughout the entire show, the trainers will burn the front paws so that it is too painful and sore for the bear to walk on all fours as it would do normally. Often the bears are painfully and restrictively muzzled as well as de-clawed.

During rehearsals the bears are so badly beaten about the face that a number of bears suffer from broken noses. An ex-circus employee gave the following account of how the endearing bears were treated if they failed to perform. “She was a sweet little innocent brown bear who never hurt anyone... but sometimes she had trouble balancing on the high wire. She was then beaten with long metal rods until she was screaming and bloody. She became so neurotic that she would beat her head against her small cage. She finally died.”



Our closest animal kin the monkeys and apes, as with all animals kept for our entertainment at circuses have a very sad life. These naturally curious and social beings would normally live in large extended family groups. They groom, hug and look after one another. In the wild they climb the trees of the forest swinging between the branches, living a care free and happy life; but life in the circus is not fun at all for those that have been captured in nets and shipped away. Primates suffer considerable stress being caged with no social contact.

In order to get the untamed animals to perform these primates including chimpanzees and baboons will be beaten with a studded club. A research associate with the Institute of Primate Research in Kenya, Dr. Robert Sapolsky noted “Training 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.” Baboon may also be subjected to solitary confinement which is extremely psychologically distressing for the animals; this is done to subjugate them so that they can be trained more easily.

 Using love and kindness is a much better method of training but this requires a lot of time and patient which is lacking in the circus arena. Beating and abuse are much more widespread methods of getting monkeys to perform silly tricks that often lead to the injury of the animal involved. Some chimps even have their teeth knocked out with a hammer so that they will not bite the trainer. Striking with all manner of implements in the most sensitive areas such as the face and the posterior are the methods most routinely employed to get primates to perform.


All the animals once they have outlived there usefulness will be killed or sold to laboratories for scientific research thereby extending their torturous lives with unthinkable cruelty. The people who profit from the exploitation of these animals claim that the circus is educational, however seeing a an elephant balance a ball on his trunk or a monkey ride a bike, hardly informs the audience of the true nature and environment of these wonderful and interesting beings. So what is the best way to stop this pointless cruelty, the answer is to not to attend the circus that use live animals but instead go to the humane circuses that use human feats of acrobatics such as Cirque du Soleil. You can also spread the word and tell your friends and family about the truth of animal shows at circuses and other events.

Click here to find out what you can do to help the animals or learn more about animal issues.

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