Despite negative public opinion on the use of animals in circuses as well as bans in several states and countries, circuses remain big business. In the U.S, it is estimated that 10.46 million people visit circuses per year, and a great many of these still feature animals. Many of those countries and states who have banned the use of exotic animals still allow the use of other animals.
Animals used in circuses range from common birds, bears, foxes and snakes, to more exotic animals like lions, tigers and elephants. Most of these are sourced from private breeders, though many are purchased as surplus from zoos. During performances, animals are often required to perform dangerous stunts, such as elephants balancing on balls, tigers jumping through fire, bears riding bicycles and lions being ridden by handlers. Training animals to perform such unnatural feats requires intensive training, often involving the use of cruel practices such as whipping, hooks, electrocution and food deprivation. The extreme stress and pain caused by these practices mean that, understandably, animals often fight back; captive elephants alone killed 65 people and injured 130 from 1990 to 2003. Circus animals who attack humans are usually killed. Animals who are too old or disobedient to be useful to circuses are sometimes properly retired, but they are often sold to zoos, roadside attractions, game farms, research laboratories or private individuals. Many meet uncertain fates.
Even when not performing, studies consistently demonstrate that circus life can cause significant harm to animals. The head researcher of one study noted: “It’s no one single factor, whether it’s lack of space and exercise, or lack of social contact, all factors combined show it’s a poor quality of life compared with the wild.” Surveys suggest that on average, wild animals spend just 1 to 9 per cent of their time training, and the rest confined to cages, wagons or small enclosures. Many circus animals display repetitive stress behaviours such as pacing and bobbing. Troupes typically only stay at each single location for an average of a week before moving on, with an average of almost 300 kilometres between locations, meaning significant travel time and stress for animals. Several undercover investigations have revealed that cruel treatment is rife among handlers; one particular Asian elephant was filmed being struck with a metal pitchfork and kicked in the face while shackled shackled by heavy chains.
No circus can reasonably claim that their animals are happy; it is simply impossible to attempt to emulate an animal’s natural habitat or to meet their needs while travelling with a troupe. Circus animals are exploited, abused and discarded in the name of profit, and it is those who pay for the pleasure of witnessing this cruelty who are the reason this still takes place. Buying tickets for a circus featuring animals puts money into the hands of trainers, breeders and owners, and so long as circuses remain a profitable enterprise, these atrocities will continue. With a wealth of world class animal-free circuses touring all over the world, there is simply no excuse to support this cruelty.