Animal Cruelty in Circuses

PETA Protests Final Ringling Brothers Performance In DC

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Most accusations of animal cruelty in circuses focus on the elephants, but from an animal rights perspective, no animals should be forced to perform tricks in order to earn money for their human captors.

Circuses and Animal Rights

The animal rights position is that animals have a right to be free of human use and exploitation. In a vegan world, animals would interact with humans when and if they want to, not because they are chained to a stake or trapped in a cage. Animal rights are not about bigger cages or more humane training methods; it's about not using or exploiting animals for food, clothing, or entertainment. When it comes to circuses, attention has focused on elephants because they are considered by many to be highly intelligent, are the largest circus animals, might be the most abused, and arguably suffer more in captivity than smaller animals. However, animal rights are not about ranking or quantifying suffering, because all sentient beings deserve to be free.

Circuses and Animal Welfare

The animal welfare position is that humans have a right to use animals, but cannot harm animals gratuitously and must treat them "humanely." What is considered "humane" varies greatly. Many animal welfare advocates consider fur, foie gras, and cosmetics testing to be frivolous uses of animals, with too much animal suffering and not much benefit to humans. Some animal welfare advocates would say that eating meat is morally acceptable as long as the animals were raised and slaughtered "humanely."

Regarding circuses, some animal welfare advocates would support keeping animals in circuses as long as training methods are not too cruel. In 2016, California banned the use of bullhooks, a sharp tool that is used as punishment in training elephants. Many would support a ban on "wild" or "exotic" animals in circuses.

Circus Cruelty

Animals in circuses are often beaten, shocked, kicked, or cruelly confined in order to train them to be obedient and do tricks.

With elephants, the abuse begins when they are babies to break their spirits. All four of the baby elephant's legs are chained or tied for up to 23 hours per day. While they are chained, they are beaten and shocked with electric prods. It can take up to six months before they learn that struggling is futile. The abuse continues into adulthood, and they are never free of the bullhooks that puncture their skin. Bloody wounds are covered with makeup to conceal them from the public. Some argue that elephants must love performing because you can't bully such a large animal into doing tricks, but with the weapons at their disposal and years of physical abuse, elephant trainers can usually beat them into submission. There are, however, tragic cases where the elephants rampaged and/or killed their tormentors, leading to the elephants being put down.

Elephants are not the only victims of abuse in circuses. According to Big Cat Rescue, lions and tigers also suffer at the hands of their trainers: "Often the cats are beaten, starved, and confined for long periods of time in order to get them to cooperate with what the trainers want. And life on the road means that most of a cat’s life is spent in a circus wagon in the back of a semi-truck or in a crowded, stinking box car on a train or barge."

An investigation of one circus by Animal Defenders International found that the dancing bears "spend around 90% of their time shut in their cages inside a trailer. Their time outside these miserable prison cells generally averages just 10 minutes a day on weekdays and 20 minutes on weekends." ADI's video "shows one bear desperately circling a small steel cage measuring about 31/2 feet wide, by 6ft deep and about 8ft high. The steel floor of this barren cage is covered in just a scattering of sawdust."

With horses, dogs, and other domesticated animals, training and confinement may not be as torturous, but any time an animal is used commercially, the animals' well-being is not the first priority.

Even if the circuses did not engage in cruel training or extreme confinement methods (zoos generally do not engage in cruel training or extreme confinement, but still violate the animals' rights), animal rights advocates would oppose the use of animals in circuses because the practices involved with breeding, buying, selling, and confining animals violates their rights.

Circus Animals and the Law

In 2009, Bolivia became the first country in the world to ban all animals in circuses. China and Greece passed similar bans in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The United Kingdom has banned the use of "wild" animals in circuses but allows "domesticated" animals to be used.

In the United States, the federal Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act would ban the use of nonhuman primates, elephants, lions, tigers, and other species in circuses, but has not been passed yet. While no U.S. states have banned animals in circuses, at least seventeen towns have banned them.

The welfare of the animals in circuses in the U.S. is governed by the Animal Welfare Act, which offers only the bare minimum of protection and does not prohibit the use of bullhooks or electric prods. Other laws, like the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act protect certain animals, such as elephants and sea lions. In 2011, a lawsuit against Ringling Brothers was dismissed based on a finding that plaintiffs did not have standing; the court did not rule on the cruelty allegations.

The Solution

While some animal advocates want to regulate the use of animals in circuses, circuses with animals will never be considered completely cruelty-free. Also, some advocates believe that a ban on bullhooks just causes the practice to remain backstage and does little to help the animals.

The solution is to go vegan, boycott circuses with animals, and support animal-free circuses, such as Cirque du Soleil and Cirque Dreams.