Animals In Print
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June 10, 2012

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The tragic facts of animals' lives behind the scenes in the Circus

Animals in Print circus abuse

For many, the word “circus” evokes imagery of popcorn, candy, "wild" animals, and fun. However, behind the glitter and the glitz of the circus lies a cruel world of untold animal suffering. Animals used in circuses are unwilling participants in a show that jeopardizes their health and mental well-being and the lives of human spectators and performers.

Trained by pain

Animals in Print circus abuse

Circuses force animals to perform tricks that have nothing to do with how these magnificent creatures behave in the wild. These unnatural acts range from a tiger jumping through a flaming hoop to bears riding bicycles. Animals are sometimes injured while performing: tigers, who naturally fear fire, have been burned jumping through flaming hoops. Training animals to perform acts that are sometimes painful or that they do not understand requires whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods and other tools. Elephants are trained through the use of an ankus—a wooden stick with a sharp, pointed hook at the end to discourage undesired behavior. An elephant handler will never be seen working with an elephant without an ankus in one hand or discreetly tucked under his arm. Although an elephant's skin is thick, it is very sensitive—sensitive enough to feel a fly on her back. The ankus is embedded into elephants' most sensitive areas, such as around the feet, behind the ears, under the chin, inside the mouth, and other locations around the face. Sometimes it is used to smash them across the face. Circuses claim to use "positive reinforcement" and to base their tricks on behaviors that animals carry out naturally. If this were true, however, the trainers would be carrying bags of food treats, not a metal weapon.

Travel can be torture

Animals in Print circus abuse

Animals in circuses either travel in 18-wheelers or by train. During transport and between performances, tigers, who in the wild would secure 75-2,000 square miles, are kept in cages with barely enough room to turn around. Elephants, who walk up to 25 miles a day with their families in their natural habitat, are shackled in chains by their front and back legs so that they can't take a step forward or backward. They are forced to eat, sleep, and defecate in the same trailers, where they can be kept for stretches of more than 24 hours. Often the animals are not let off the railroad cars immediately upon arrival in their destination, either because of traffic conditions or because the train arrived too early or late. In this instance, the animals are forced to wait inside of the railroad cars for hours—even in extreme temperatures.

Circus schedules are created to maximize attendees, not to accommodate the animals from which they profit. Some of the many U.S. circuses that use animals travel as many as 48 weeks out of the year and cover thousands of miles. Some circuses go to warmer states in the summer, even though the animals may suffer in extreme temperatures. The same unfortunate situation occurs in the winter in colder areas. These factors exacerbate the already stressful conditions caused by confinement and transport. \

Life in captivity

Animals in Print circus abuse

Even if conditions were improved and humane methods of training were used, the fact is that keeping wild animals in captivity deprives animals of much of what they value in life. Elephants, tigers, chimpanzees, and other animals used in circuses are complex creatures—not robots to be stacked in boxes and hauled to the next show. Animals have relationships with other members of their species and would naturally live in social groups or families. Baby elephants generally stay with their mothers for fifteen years if they are male and their entire lives if they are female. Yet in circuses, baby elephants are ripped from their mothers' sides as young as one year old because baby elephants are cute and draw a crowd which in turn helps the circus reap profit. Animals value exploring their environment, nurturing their young, courting and mating, and playing with others. However, in captivity, they are prevented from doing all of these things and instead live a life based on human wants and whims.

Lives of constant confinement and frustration of natural instincts force animals into a state of neurosis.

Elephants in circuses constantly sway back and forth in their chains, and tigers constantly pace in their cages.

These repetitive behaviors are symptoms of deep psychological distress due to being deprived of fulfilling their natural instincts. Animals can resort to self-mutilation from lack of psychological stimulation. These animals belong in their natural environments in the jungles of Africa and Asia—not in American arenas and parking lots.


Contrary to what circuses say and the justification some schools use for taking students to circuses, seeing animals in circuses does not provide a realistic educational tool because the animals are forced to perform tricks and live in conditions that are not natural for them. The animals are in an environment drastically different from their natural habitats, and their spirits are broken from harsh training and from not being able to fulfill some of their most basic needs and instincts.

Animals in Print circus abuse

Public safety: Reason for concern

Animals in circuses are a threat to public safety. When animals are brought into a new town by train, they are often walked from the train to an arena where they will be performing. Wild animals on city streets should give communities reason to be concerned. Cars, pedestrians, and elephants are side by side on busy city streets. Although some animals are accustomed to the heat, they are not used to walking on hot pavement or to not having access to water, trees, or mud holes. Circus trainers will even withhold food and water from animals to reduce untimely excrement. Elephants are harried along, forbidden to drink from puddles or snatch a branch from a tree by a bullhook-wielding trainer. Having these instincts stifled adds to the stress of transport and an unnatural environment, and animals are much more likely to become violent under these conditions.

Elephants in circuses have gone on rampages, injuring and killing spectators and causing property damage. Since 1990, 18 people have been killed and 86 have been injured. In 1994 an elephant named Tyke killed her handler, then went on a rampage in the streets of Honolulu, injuring onlookers and damaging property. Tyke was eventually gunned down by police on a busy street. Other incidents have occurred when elephants are frightened, sometimes by the honking of car horns or other stressors. Tigers have also been known to attack and kill their trainers; others have escaped into terrified communities.

Some elephants used in circuses have been found to carry a human strain of tuberculosis (TB). These animals pose a serious health risk since they are in contact with the public during publicity events and when children receive elephant rides.

Fun circuses

An end to animal circuses doesn't mean an end to fun. There are many circuses that are exciting and entertaining without abusing animals. Cirque du Soleil, The New Pickle Family Circus, Circus Smirkus, Cirque Eloize, Circus Oz and the Mexican National Circus are all wonderful circuses that offer family entertainment using only willing human performers.

By supporting animal-free entertainment and boycotting circuses that use animals, we can move towards an end to the use of animals in circuses.

Source: IDA, In Defense of Animals

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