Circuses and other shows

Circuses and other shows

Animals all around the world suffer terribly in circuses and other shows using animals. They are forced to live in situations that are often similar to those in factory farms, and are continuously subjected to pain, terrible fear, and distress so they will perform in circus acts. A comprehensive scientific study published several years ago concluded that circuses cause significant suffering to the animals forced to perform.1

The way animals used in entertainment are forced to live

Animals used in circuses spend almost their entire lives in traveling crates, barns, or trucks in which they lack room to move freely. These places are cramped and uncomfortable.2

Horses are often kept in crates in which they cannot even turn around. Big cats often cannot move in their cages. Elephants are permanently chained, and therefore, also unable to move very much. Circus animals spend most of their lives like this. However, when they are out of their crates or cages their situation is even worse: they are let out just to be tortured so they perform.

In addition to extreme confinement and very poor housing conditions, the stress these animals undergo is increased because they are made to travel in trucks for thousands of miles. In many cases they travel at least once a week, with almost no rest.3 This causes many animals to die on the road. It is common for them not to be fed or given enough water while traveling. They also suffer from the heat or cold, since the trucks transporting them are not climate controlled to make the effects of the weather milder. They often lack ventilation as well.

This causes much distress for the animals, and in particular for those animals who are not used to very hot or very cold conditions, such as polar bears, ungulates or big cats imported from the African savanna. These animals may also be affected by the weather even when they are not traveling, since local climates can be far too cold or hot compared to what is comfortable for them.

Tortured to perform

Animals exploited in circuses are forced to make certain movements and perform in certain ways which are presented as “artistic performances” such as dances and leaps. They are taught to perform certain “tricks” that are often physically uncomfortable and psychologically distressing, as well as dangerous. Over time the animals can damage their muscles, joints, or bones. For instance, elephants are often made to stand on their hind legs or even balance on one leg. This can cause hernias for such heavy animals. Another common trick for elephants is to pretend they can dance by moving their heads violently from one side to the other. This can cause them nerve and muscle pain, which may eventually become chronic. Tigers, lions, and other big cats are forced to jump through burning rings. They are very scared of fire, so they wouldn’t do this unless they were even more scared of the trainers. A similar case is that of apes who ride motorcycles. In other cases, animals such as big cats are forced to stand on top of horses. This is terrifying for both the horses (who fear the predator on top of them) and the big cats. Bears are forced to stand on their hind legs, and although they can sometimes do this, it is uncomfortable for them to do it for a very long time. One way to force them to do it is to burn the bears’ front paws so that it’s painful for the bears to walk on them.

The distress of having to perform is increased by the presence of many spectators. In addition, it has been proven that loud noises (such as the ones a crowd makes) are a very significant cause of stress.4

How can it be, then, that animals nevertheless manage to perform in circuses? The answer is simple. They do it out of fear of being punished. The “trainers” frequently use chains, whips, muzzles, metal hooks, and electric prods to force animals to behave in a certain manner. Other methods include chaining animals and depriving them of food and water.

In order for trainers to be able to control the behavior of the animals, they break the animals’ wills from a very young age. This is done by systematically beating them. When baby elephants arrive at the circus they are beaten continuously during the first few weeks until they completely surrender and learn to obey and be terrified of the trainers. This punishment is constant and very harsh, since otherwise it might fail to condition the animals to act in ways that are uncomfortable and unnatural to them.

Circuses have acknowledged the use of these methods. For example, Kenneth Feld, the CEO of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, admitted that elephants are struck behind their ears, under their chins, and on their legs with chains, metal prods, and hooks. He also acknowledged that they are given electroshocks.5

Animals are also mutilated so it is less risky for humans to train them. For example, animals are often declawed and have their teeth taken out, sometimes with hammers, in order to prevent them from attacking their trainers. We all can imagine how horrible, painful, and traumatic this must be, and it can lead to many problems when it comes to eating.

Sometimes the animals are also drugged to perform, so they are subdued and less dangerous while performing.

Damage to the physical and psychological health of the animals

In addition to the physical pain that these forms of torture cause, we must add psychological distress because of the anxiety and fear the torture causes the animals. In fact, due to the tortures they endure, together with the conditions of their enslavement and the lack of any opportunity to exercise or have any entertainment or social relations, the animals commonly suffer from psychological problems, which can lead to very serious mental conditions. As a result, the animals commonly display stereotyped behaviors, such as repeatedly moving back and forth or from side to side. Others hit their heads, bite the bars of their cages, or self-mutilate.

Life in the circus is particularly hard for social animals. They would like to be together with other members of their group; instead, they live alone or with a very small number of other individuals. This means that they can’t have the social relations they want and need in order to stay mentally healthy.6 They feel lonely and mentally suffer as a result, just as we would in their situation.

Due to the high levels of stress and frustration the animals suffer,7 they sometimes refuse to perform despite the harsh punishments they receive. When this occurs, the customary way to deal with the animals is by punishing them harder. Even in cases in which the animals have undergone these extra punishments, they may continue refusing to perform if they break down psychologically or their frustration reaches very high levels.

There are many other hardships imposed on animals kept in circuses. It has been suggested in defense of circuses with animals that training and performance provides the animals with the exercise they need.8 But this is far from the truth. Due to the conditions they live in and their inability to move and exercise, they often develop joint problems and may even become lame. Obesity is also an issue for circus animals since they cannot exercise.

In addition, circus animals cannot do other things that are healthy for them, such as take mud baths, which elephants need to keep their skin healthy. As a result, elephants often have skin problems.

The end of suffering in circuses

As a result of their situation, many animals have tried to escape from the circus or have attacked and even killed their exploiters. This has happened in particular in the case of elephants. But instead of rescuing these animals in distress, humans have killed them.9

Death also awaits animals when their exploitation is no longer profitable. When this happens they are locked in cages until they die or are sold to laboratories or private collections.

It’s important to bear in mind that this happens not only to the animals we have been discussing, such as elephants, bears, and big cats, but also to many other animals who live in circuses. In fact, even though the idea of a “circus with animals” brings to mind wild animals, in many circuses horses, pigs, dogs, and other domesticated animals are exploited as well. From an ethical perspective, the circuses that use any animals must be rejected.

Fortunately, nowadays, more and more people are aware that circuses with animals must cease to exist. In fact, many places, such as Bolivia and Greece have banned circuses with animals. Today, there are many circuses that only include humans performing, such as Cirque du Soleil, Circus Chimera, New Shanghai Circus, Flying High Circus, Circus Millennia, and many others.

Other venues in which animals are exploited: zoos are not like animal sanctuaries

In addition to circuses, there are other venues in which nonhuman animals suffer for the sake of human entertainment. Among these are aquariums and zoos. Defenders of these businesses claim that it is good for animals to be taken care of, even if that means being in places where they cannot be completely free.10

To see why this is not a sound claim, we must first recognize that it is good to be taken care of even if that means you are not totally independent, at least when the alternative is suffering and death, as it is for most animals currently. Denying this would be failing to understand the interests animals have in living good lives. We can see this clearly if we consider the case of true animal shelters and sanctuaries. All around the world there are people who have built new homes for animals who have suffered due to exploitation by humans or other causes. For instance, animals rescued from farms and laboratories have started new lives in these new homes where they are taken care of and can live free from oppression. These rescues would not have been possible without the existence of such places. Animals in the wild, such as orphan animals whose families have been killed by humans or died from natural causes, have also been rescued. These animals would have died if it weren’t for the people who rescued them and provided them with new homes.

However, this argument does not hold in the case of zoos. In many zoos around the world, animals have to endure circumstances that cause them distress. These circumstances are the same as those endured by animals in circuses. One is loneliness, which can be very distressing in the case of social animals. Another is confinement; many animals in zoos lack room to move and exercise. These animals also find themselves living in uncomfortable places with concrete walls and floors. They also endure harsh weather conditions; animals fit for particularly cold, hot, wet, or dry places have to deal with completely different environments. These animals often have chronically poor health. Some of them are individual, solitary animals who endure stress due to lack of privacy from always being exposed to the zoos’ visitors.11

Animals in aquariums

Animals who are used in aquariums, in particular in aquatic shows, undergo much distress.

These animals have a lack of space in the aquarium, which is usually very small. This is pretty obvious in the case of large animals such as marine mammals. In countries such as the USA, dolphins can be confined in tanks that are only about 9-10 meters/30 feet long. As a result, these animals spend the whole day swimming in circles and their mental health is seriously affected.

Another reason why aquariums cause torment is because many animals kept for shows in aquariums, such as dolphins and other marine mammals, use echolocation. When these animals are locked in tanks, the echoes of the sounds their sonar produces rebound constantly off the ends of the tanks and come back to them immediately. This is extremely stressful and severely affects their mental health. It’s very hard to imagine how this must feel to them. We can guess how it would be by imagining what it would be like to be locked in a small room in which we can’t hear anything except for a very loud noise. However, even this may be misleading, because echolocation appears to be more important for these animals than hearing is for us. Maybe a better comparison, for most human beings at least, would be one in which we imagine we are blind and we have to constantly hear the loud sound.

These animals usually have significant skin problems caused by the water in the pools, which is filled with chemicals and has a composition that is not good for them.

Furthermore, various dental pathologies are observed across captives whales, with pathologies beginning at a young age. Oral stereotypies exhibited by orcas contribute to the observed dental damage. Approximately 24% of whales exhibit “major” to “extreme” mandibular coronal tooth wear, with coronal wear and wear at or below gum line highly correlated. More than 60% of mandibular teeth 2 and 3 exhibit fractures.12

In addition, as it used to be and still is in many countries with human slavery, the animals are often separated from their families. Moreover, when they are captured in the wild it is not uncommon for them to die due to stress during their capture and transport.

Conservationism against the defense of animals

Another argument claims that aquariums and zoos are necessary because of the role they play in the conservation of species.13 In many cases, the populations of animals confined in these places are considered to be something like “gene reserves” for when animals of that species disappear in the wild.14

This once again shows the conflict between views that aim to conserve species or ecosystems, even if it means harming sentient beings to achieve that aim, and those that consider the interests of animals.

Other animals are victims of shows using nonhuman animals

Finally, all shows and displays that include the use of animals also harm other animals who don’t appear in them. They are those used to feed the animals that are used in aquariums, zoos, circuses, and other shows. In some cases, the feeding is done as a show. In Beijing’s zoo, visitors can buy animals, such as hens or goats, that they can throw to big cats to watch them tear apart and eat alive.15

Even in cases where this doesn’t happen and animals aren’t eaten alive in front of visitors, they are nevertheless captured or farmed so these shows can continue.

Further readings

Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain (2001) Standards for the care and welfare of circus animals on tour, Blackburn: Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain.

Ballantyne, R.; Packer, J.; Hughes, K. & Dierking, L. (2007) “Conservation learning in wildlife tourism settings: Lessons from research in zoos and aquariums”, Environmental Education Research, 13, pp. 367-383.

Banks, M.; Monsalve Torraca, L. S.; Greenwood, A. G.; Iossa, G.; Soulsbury, C. D. & Harris, S. (2009) “Are wild animals suited to a travelling circus life?”, Animal Welfare, 18, pp. 129-140.

Barnard, C. J. & Hurst, J. L. (1996) “Welfare by design: the natural selection of welfare criteria”, Animal Welfare, 5, pp. 405-433.

Bashaw, M. J.; Bloomsmith, M. A.; Marr, M. J. & Maple, T. L. (2003) “To hunt or not to hunt? A feeding enrichment with captive large felids”, Zoo Biology, 22, pp. 189-198.

Bostock, S. (1993) Zoos and animal rights: The ethics of keeping animals, London: Routledge.

Bowles, A. E. & Thompson, S. J. (1996) “A review of non-auditory physiological effects of noise on animals”, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 100, p. 2708.

Boyd, L. (1986) “Behavior problems of equids in zoos”, Veterinary Clinics of North America-Equine Practice, 2, pp. 653-664.

Clubb, R.; Rowcliffe, M.; Lee, P.; Mar, K. U.; Moss, C.; Mason, G. J. (2008) “Compromised survivorship in zoo elephants”, Science, 322, p. 1649.

Crane, M. (2007) “Without the wisdom of Solomon or his ring: Setting standards for exhibited animals in New South Wales”, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 2, pp. 223-229.

Friend, T. H. (1999) “Behavior of picketed circus elephants”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 62, pp. 73-88.

Frost, W. (2010) Zoos and tourism: Conservation, education, entertainment?, Bristol: Channel View.

Galhardo, L. (2005) Animals in circuses: Legislation and controls in the European Union, Brussels: Eurogroup for Wildlife and Laboratory Animals.

Garner, J. P. & Mason, G. J. (2002) “Evidence for a relationship between cage stereotypies and behavioural disinhibition in laboratory rodents”, Behavioural Brain Research, 136, pp. 83-92.

Gore, M.; Hutchins, M. & Ray, J. (2006) “A review of injuries caused by elephants in captivity: An examination of the predominant factors”, International Zoo Yearbook, 40, pp. 51-62.

Grandin, T. (1997) “Assessment of stress during handling and transport”, Journal of Animal Science, 75, pp. 249-257.

Gusset, M. & Dick, G. (2011) “The global reach of zoos and aquariums in visitor numbers and conservation expenditures”, Zoo Biology, 30, pp. 566-569.

Hosey, G.R. (2000) “Zoo animals and their human audiences: What is the visitor effect?”, Animal Welfare, 9, pp. 343-357.

Hutchins, M.; Smith, B. & Allard, R. (2003) “In defense of zoos and aquariums: The ethical basis for keeping wild animals in captivity”, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 223, pp. 958-966.

Kiley-Worthington, M. (1989) Animals in circuses, Horhsam: Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Krawczel, P. D.; Friend, T. H. & Windom, A. (2005) “Stereotypic behavior of circus tigers: Effects of performance”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 95, pp. 189-198.

Kuhar, C. W. (2006) “In the deep end: Pooling data and other statistical challenges of zoo and aquarium research”, Zoo Biology, 25, pp. 339-352.

Mason, G. J. & Veasey, J. S. (2010) “What do population-level welfare indices suggest about the well-being of zoo elephants?”, Zoo Biology, 29, pp. 256-73.

Mullan, B. & Marvin, G. (1999) Zoo culture, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Radford, M. (2007) Wild animals in travelling circuses: The report of the Chairman of the Circus Working Group, [London: Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, accessed on 3 August 2016].

Schmid, J. (1995) “Keeping circus elephants temporarily in paddocks: The effects on their behaviour”, Animal Welfare, 4, pp. 87-101.

Schmid, J. (1998) “Status and reproductive capacity of the Asian elephant in zoos and circuses in Europe”, International Zoo News, 45, pp. 341-351.


1 Iossa, G.; Soulsbury, C. D. & Harris, S. (2009) “Are wild animals suited to a travelling circus life?”, Animal Welfare, 18, pp. 129-140.

2 Friend, T. H. & Parker, M. L. (1999) “The effect of penning versus picketing on stereotypic behavior of circus elephants”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 64, pp. 213-225.

3 Dembiec, D. P.; Snider, R. J. & Zanella, A. J. (2004) “The effects of transport stress on Tiger physiology and behavior”, Zoo Biology, 23, pp. 335-346.

4 Birke, L. (2002) “Effects of browse, human visitors and noise on the behaviour of captive orangutans”, Animal Welfare, 11, pp. 189-202.

5 CBS News (2009) “Circus defends use of hooks on elephants”, CBS News, March 3 [accessed on 23 November 2011].

6 Price, E. E. & Stoinski, T .S. (2007) “Group size: Determinants in the wild and implications for the captive housing of wild mammals in zoos”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 103, pp. 255-264.

7 Kiley-Worthington, M. (1990) Animals in zoos and circuses: Chiron’s world?, Essex: Little Eco-Farms Publishing.

8 Hediger, H. (1955) Studies of the psychology and behaviour of animals in zoos and circuses, London: Butterworths Scientific Publications.

9 Schroeder, J. V. (1997) “The day they hanged an elephant in East Tennessee”, Blue Ridge Country, May 1 [accessed on 14 January 2013].

10 Zamir, T. (2007) “The welfare-based defense of zoos”, Society and Animals, 15, pp. 191-201 [accessed on 14 April 2020].

11 Davey, G. (2007) “Visitors’ effects on the welfare of animals in the zoo: A review”, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 10, pp. 169-183.

12 Jett, J.; Visser, I. N.; Ventre, J.; Waltz, J. & Loch, C. (2017) “Tooth damage in captive orcas (Orcinus orca)”, Archives or Oral Biology, 84, pp. 151-160.

13 Norton, B. G. (1995) Ethics on the ark: Zoos, animal welfare, and wildlife conservation, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. Hutchins, M. & Conway, W. G. (1995) “Beyond Noah’s ark: The evolving role of modern zoological parks and aquariums in field conservation”, International Zoo Yearbook, 34, pp. 117-130. Mazur, N. & Clark, T. (2001) “Zoos and conservation: Policy making and organizational challenges”, Bulletin Series Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 105, pp. 185-201. Miller, B.; Conway, W.; Reading, R. P.; Wemmer, C.; Wildt, D.; Kleiman, D.; Monfort, S.; Rabinowitz, A.; Armstrong, B. & Hutchins, M. (2004) “Evaluating the conservation mission of zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and natural history museums”, Conservation Biology, 18, pp. 86-93. Shani, A. & Pizam, A. (2010) “The role of animal-based attractions in ecological sustainability: Current issues and controversies”, Worldwide Hospitality and Tourism Themes, 2, pp. 281-298. Clessa, I. T.; Voss-Hoynec, H. A.; Ritzmann, R. E. & Lukasa, K. E. (2015) “Defining pacing quantitatively: A comparison of gait characteristics between pacing and non-repetitive locomotion in zoo-housed polar bears”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 169, pp. 78-85.

14 Clarke, A. (2009) “The Frozen Ark Project: The role of zoos and aquariums in preserving the genetic material of threatened animals”, International Zoo Yearbook, 43, pp. 222-230.

15 Penman, D. (2008) “Torn to pieces by lions in front of baying crowds: The spectator sport China doesn’t want you to see”, Mail Online, 05 January [accessed on 23 July 2013]. Cottle, L.; Tamir, D.; Hyseni, M.; Bühler, D. & Lindemann-Matthies, P. (2010) “Feeding live prey to zoo animals: Response of zoo visitors in Switzerland”, Zoo Biology, 29, pp. 344-350.