To get updates on new site content, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.


From JFA Wiki
This is the latest revision of this page; it has no approved revision.


Many of us grew up enjoying the circus and got excited when our parents announced it was that time of year. But most of us had no idea about the systemic, recurring abuse to the animals that went on behind the scenes in order to get them to perform for our entertainment. But it shouldn't be surprising, as the exploitation of animals is almost always associated with mistreatment and abuse.

In this article, we give some background information about circuses and their popularity. We highlight some of the abuses circus animals have been made to endure, and how we know about those abuses. We discuss anti-circus activism and share some information about circuses that have stopped operating and why they said they stopped. Finally, we discuss the success of some alternatives to the traditional animal-based shows.

All the ethical problems with circuses arise from a more fundamental problem, which is the belief that animals are here to be exploited by humans. As philosopher Tom Regan puts it, they "have a life of their own that is of importance to them, apart from their utility to us. They are not only in the world, they are aware of it and also of what happens to them. And what happens to them matters to them."

General Information

Brief History

Early Circus Elephants (1888)
Early Circus Elephants (1888)

The modern circus is thought to have originated in England in 1770. Cavalry officer Philip Astley had been setting up performances of horse-riding tricks since 1768, but in 1770 he hired clowns, acrobats, and other performers to entertain visitors in the intervals between horse-riding acts.[1] Others soon copied the format.

Initially, wild animals were only displayed as part of a menagerie. In the late nineteenth century, elephants and big cats were trained to perform tricks and soon became a regular feature in circus acts.[2] Other animals such as camels, zebras, bears, sea lions, and monkeys were later introduced.

One of the most famous circuses ever to exist was the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, advertised as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” In total, the circus and its predecessors ran for 146 years, from 1871 to 2017.[3] It was formed by merging two large circuses — Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows and Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth. In 2016, the circus announced it would stop using elephants in its performances in response to pressure from animal rights groups.[4]

Ticket sales had been declining for a decade, which CEO Kenneth Feld blamed on changing public tastes. He also explained that the circus' traditional model of traveling by train and providing a school for performers' children was no longer sustainable. According to Feld's daughter Juliette, ticket sales fell further following the announcement that elephants would no longer be used.[5] These factors, along with conflicts with animal rights groups, led the circus to shut down in 2017.[4]

Current Operations

The major circuses that still use animals are:

  • Carson & Barnes Circus: A large circus based in Oklahoma. It tours the US.
  • UniverSoul Circus: A single-ring circus based in Georgia and touring the US.
  • Shrine circuses: Local chapters put on performances in 120 US and 40 Canadian cities every year. Generally, it is a large three-ring circus, though the size of the performance varies between cities. In recent years, attendance and profits have been declining and the circus has not always made a profit.[6]
  • Carden International Circus: A large, established circus based in Missouri and touring the US.
  • Jordan World Circus: A three-ring circus based in Nevada. It tours the US.
  • Garden Bros. Circus: This smaller circus is based in Florida and tours both the US and Canada. It also uses the name King Cole Circus. The company has had financial difficulties throughout its existence and has been sued multiple times for not paying bills.[7]

Other circuses that use animals include Circo Hermanos Vazquez, Circus Hollywood, Circus Pages, Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, Franzen Bros. Circus, Lewis & Clark Circus, Mitchel Kalmanson, Royal Hanneford Circus, Tarzan Zerbini Circus

Investigations and Inspections

Circus Elephant Traning
Circus Elephant Traning

Investigations by animal rights groups such as PETA, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and Last Chance for Animals have discovered that animals are trained with cruel methods such as the use of bullhooks, whips, and electric prods. They are kept confined in cramped, dirty cages for most of the day, sometimes without adequate access to food and water. Often, sick or injured animals do not receive veterinary care.[8][9][10][11]

All the major animal-using circuses have been cited by the USDA for multiple animal welfare violations.[12] These include not providing animals with adequate shelter, not giving them enough space, transporting them in unsafe vehicles, failing to give them clean water, and not providing veterinary care. Handlers have been cited for abusive behaviors such as using bullhooks too forcefully.[13]

Abuses to Circus Animals

Circus animals are not willing volunteers who perform because they have a desire to entertain us. They are trained using abusive techniques, then compelled to perform out of fear of what will happen if they don't. As shown below, sorry living conditions, along with cruel handling and training are the rule for these animals.


Since most circuses travel frequently, performing animals typically spend much of their time confined in small cages. The cages are often filthy, with animals forced to eat, drink, sleep, urinate and defecate in cramped conditions.[14] Elephants, who walk up to 40 miles a day in the wild,[15] are often chained by the legs for extended periods. They are sometimes confined for up to 22 hours a day, with no access to grazing. Objects which enrich the environment, such as logs, are generally not provided since they may be used to break down the barriers.[14]

Even when they are not traveling, many animals are kept confined whenever they are not training or performing. Circus animals often exhibit repetitive behaviors known as stereotypies. These are common in other captive animals, such as zoo animals. They include swaying, pacing, head-bobbing, and rocking. Some animals may even mutilate themselves. These behaviors are caused by the stress of being in captivity and are not found in wild animals.[16][14]

Some circus animals become overweight because of a lack of exercise combined with poor diet. They may even develop problems such as lameness and arthritis.[14]

In 2015, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe concluded that "The needs of non-domesticated, wild mammals cannot be met within a travelling  circus; especially in terms of housing and being able to express normal behaviours."[17]


As mentioned above, circus animals are confined to very small cages during transportation, usually on trucks. As most circus animals are wild, the noise, handling, and cage motion are frightening and confusing.[18] Animals have been found to have elevated cortisol levels for 3-6 days after being transported, suggesting that the experience is very stressful. A study of tigers showed that for animals who have not been transported many times before, cortisol levels may remain high for up to 12 days. Often, the animals are transported again before having had time to recover.[14]

Temperatures during transportation can also be a problem. Studies have found that few circuses use insulation or ventilation, and animals are not able to move around to keep warm.[14] In 1997, a circus elephant in New Mexico died after being left in a trailer where temperatures rose to 120°F.[19]

Handling and Training

Elephants are forced to become pregnant when they are as young as eight years old. In the wild, few elephants breed before the age of 15.[20] When the elephants give birth, their babies are taken away. This is extremely distressing for the mother, who is usually tied up to prevent her from fighting back.[21] Wild elephants are usually not weaned until the age of four or five.[22]

A PETA investigation found that bears in Chinese circuses were pulled around by rings, put through their noses without the use of anesthetic.[8]

Violent methods are used to train circus animals. They perform because they are afraid of the punishments they will receive if they refuse.

Baby elephants are beaten to teach them to be obedient and may be tied up for up to 23 hours a day.[21] A pointed tool called a bullhook is commonly used to strike elephants in sensitive areas, including inside their mouths, behind their ears, and across their faces. Elephants at Carson & Barnes circus were recorded screaming in pain after having bullhooks pushed into their flesh and twisted.[23] At UniverSoul circus, elephants' wounds were covered up with a grey powder called “Wonder Dust” so they would not be visible during performances.[24] Baby elephants at some circuses have bullhooks stabbed into their hind feet to teach them to perform headstands.[21]

An investigation conducted by Last Chance for Animals revealed that elephants at Carson & Barnes circus were hit with various objects, including pitchforks and baseball bats. Electric prods were also used to shock the elephants.[11]

Bears are sometimes trained to walk on their hind legs by having their paws burned.[25] They may also be chained upright to walls, sometimes for hours at a time. This can cause permanent joint damage.[8] Whips are used on some animals, such as tigers.[10][26]

Just before going into the ring, trainers may beat animals to remind them what will happen if they don't perform correctly.[25]

Lack of Veterinary Care

On multiple occasions, inspections have found that animals were not provided with the care they needed. Cases include:

  • Elephants with untreated arthritis and abnormalities in their toes (including cracks and a potential abscess) at Garden Bros. circus.[27]
  • An emaciated tiger at a Shrine circus (hired from an exhibitor called the Hawthorn Corporation) who was refusing to eat. The tiger was not given medical care and died soon afterward.[28]
  • Several sick and injured animals at Carson & Barnes circus. Horses with open sores were being ridden, some of the elephants had huge boils, and various animals had blood running down their legs from untreated wounds. Conditions at the circus were described as “the worst case of neglect I have seen in my 12 years as an investigator.”[13]

On many occasions, animals have been euthanized because veterinary care was not provided soon enough. For example, a baby elephant at one circus fell from a pedestal and broke both legs. Because treatment was not provided, the elephant later had to be euthanized.[19]

Two Bengal tigers at Ringling Bros. circus have been euthanized due to a lack of treatment. One had kidney problems and another had ear and facial tumors.[19]


There is also evidence that performing is very stressful for animals. For example, constant loud noise can cause tigers to develop gastroenteritis. Noise and crowds also cause some animals, like bears and primates, to huddle, exhibit aversive behavior, or attempt to escape.[14]


Animals that can no longer perform are sometimes sold to canned hunt facilities, where they are shot at close range by patrons. Most US states provide no legal protection to circus animals in canned hunts. Other former circus animals are sold to zoos, illegally trafficked, or euthanized when they develop health problems that prevent them from performing.[19]

Danger to the Public

Most animals used in circuses are not domesticated, and wild animals are often unpredictable. As a result, there have also been several incidents of circus animals escaping from enclosures, sometimes attacking their handlers or members of the public. At the Suárez Brothers Circus in Mexico in 2013, a tiger attacked a trainer, who later died. In 2006, an elephant at an Irish circus escaped and charged at a man, stamping on him. And in 2004, a zebra at Bailey Brother Circus continually tried to escape. She managed to do so twice in the space of a few days, and also bit both her trainers and members of the public.[29] These incidents, and multiple others like them, show that it is not safe for circus animals to be in contact with the public.

Some elephants in circuses carry a human strain of tuberculosis (TB). Poor diet, confinement, and other stress factors make the animals more likely to develop the disease. Elephant handlers have contracted the disease on several occasions.[30]

Members of the public are also at risk because they are sometimes allowed to come into contact with the elephants. Circus visitors are sometimes allowed to pet, feed, or even ride the animals, meaning they are at risk of developing TB.[31]


In the US, the only federal law which is applicable to circus animals is the Animal Welfare Act. This requires circuses to be licensed and inspected by the USDA. However, critics claim that there are far too few inspectors and not enough resources to enforce the act. It has also been claimed that the AWA's standards are minimal and too vague.[19]

Worldwide, many countries have banned the use of wild animals in circuses. These include Israel, Singapore, Colombia, Peru, and most European countries.[32] Bolivia has banned the use of all animals in circuses, even those who are domesticated.[33] Many more countries, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia have partial or region-specific bans. In the USA, full or partial bans are active in 92 jurisdictions.[32] In October 2019, California joined New Jersey and Hawaii in banning most animals from circus performances.[34]


Several forms of activism have been carried out in protest against the use of animals in circuses. Most commonly, organized protests or demonstrations take place outside circuses. These are organized by both animal rights organizations (such as Last Chance for Animals,[11] Animal Defenders International (ADI),[35] and PETA[36]) and local activist groups.[37] The nonprofit organization CompassionWorks International organizes several anti-circus protests each month across the US.[38] PETA has also run anti-circus ads on buses in some cities.[39]

Other organizations, such as the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), assist in carrying out investigations and prosecutions into reports of abused animals. PAWS also operates a sanctuary for animals who have been rescued from circuses and other attractions that use animals for entertainment.[40] The French group One Voice reports circus animal abuse to the authorities and takes legal steps to follow up on these cases.[41]


Even if no alternatives were available, it would not be ethically justifiable to subject animals to the confinement and cruel training which are ubiquitous in circuses. Forcing animals to perform is a form of exploitation no matter how they are treated.

With so many forms of entertainment available, there is no need for similar alternatives. However, there are a number of highly successful animal-free circuses. An example is the Canadian Cirque du Soleil, a contemporary circus that has performed in over 200 cities worldwide.[42]

Additionally, some circuses that formerly used animals have stopped doing so. One of these is the Kelly Miller circus. The circus was sold in 2017 due to rapidly declining ticket sales, and its new owner decided to remove all the animal acts.[43]

For those who simply want to interact with animals, visiting or volunteering at a farm sanctuary is an ethical alternative that benefits animals.

See Also


  1. “Who Is Philip Astley.” The Philip Astley Project. Accessed October 1, 2019.
  2. Tait, P. Wild and Dangerous Performances: Animals, Emotions, Circus. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 15, 7.
  3. “Ringling Bros. Circus.” Accessed October 13, 2019.
  4. 4.0 4.1 “Timeline - Ringling Bros. Circus.” Accessed October 1, 2019.
  5. “‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ to Close after 146 Years, Ringling Brothers Says.” Accessed October 1, 2019.
  6. “Shrine Circus | Central Michigan University.” Accessed October 10, 2019.
  7. RUGER, TODD. “Trouble Follows Shows’ Manager.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Accessed October 4, 2019.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 “Bear Cubs, Lions Hit, Chained, and Deprived in the Chinese Circus Industry.” PETA Investigations (blog). Accessed October 13, 2019.
  9. “Circus Abuse Caught on Tape: Videos the Circus Doesn’t Want You to See.” PETA, July 9, 2014.
  10. 10.0 10.1 “HSUS Investigation Pulls the Curtain Back on Tiger Abuse by Traveling Circus Trainer.” A Humane World, May 18, 2017.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 “Last Chance for Animals - Circuses.” Accessed October 7, 2019.
  12. PETA. “Citations and Other Problems,” June 23, 2010.
  13. 13.0 13.1 “Carson & Barnes Circus Factsheet.” PETA. Accessed October 10, 2019.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 Harris, Stephen, Graziella Iossa, and Carl D. Soulsbury. “A Review of the Welfare of Wild Animals in Circuses.” University of Bristol, n.d.
  15. Cohn, Jeffrey P. “Do Elephants Belong in Zoos?” BioScience 56, no. 9 (2006): 714.[714:DEBIZ]2.0.CO;2.
  16. Mason, Georgia J. “Stereotypies: A Critical Review.” Animal Behaviour 41, no. 6 (June 1991): 1015–37.
  17. “FVE Position on the Use of Animals in Travelling Circuses.” FEDERATION OF VETERINARIANS OF EUROPE, June 6, 2015.
  18. Iossa, G, CD Soulsbury, and S Harris. “Are Wild Animals Suited to a Travelling Circus Life?” Animal Welfare 18, no. 2 (May 2009): 129–40.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 “Animals in Circuses and the Laws Governing Them | Animal Legal & Historical Center.” Accessed October 10, 2019.
  20. Lahdenperä, Mirkka, Khyne U Mar, and Virpi Lummaa. “Reproductive Cessation and Post-Reproductive Lifespan in Asian Elephants and Pre-Industrial Humans.” Frontiers in Zoology 11, no. 1 (December 2014): 54.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 “Ringling’s Baby Elephants Tied Up and Electro-Shocked by Trainers.” Ringling’s Baby Elephants Tied Up and Electro-Shocked by Trainers. Accessed October 13, 2019.
  22. Mumby, Hannah S., Khyne U. Mar, Adam D. Hayward, Win Htut, Ye Htut-Aung, and Virpi Lummaa. “Elephants Born in the High Stress Season Have Faster Reproductive Ageing.” Scientific Reports 5, no. 1 (November 2015): 13946.
  23. “Carson & Barnes Director Caught Beating Elephants to ’Make ‘Em Scream.’” PETA, April 26, 2017.
  24. “UniverSoul Circus Factsheet.” PETA. Accessed October 10, 2019.
  25. 25.0 25.1 “Prohibiting the Exploitation of Animals for Entertainment by Circuses.” Accessed October 10, 2019.
  26. “Undercover Investigation by The Humane Society of the United States Reveals Abused Tigers Whipped and Hit at Circuses.” The Humane Society of the United States. Accessed October 11, 2019.
  27. “Garden Bros. Circus Factsheet.” PETA, October 13, 2019.
  28. “Shrine Circuses Factsheet.” PETA. Accessed October 13, 2019.
  29. “Public Health & Safety.” Federal Circus Bill, April 8, 2014.
  30. Michalak, Kathleen. “Mycobacterium Tuberculosis Infection as a Zoonotic Disease: Transmission between Humans and Elephants.” Emerging Infectious Diseases 4, no. 2 (June 1998): 283–87.
  31. “Compendium of Measures to Prevent Disease Associated with Animals in Public Settings.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, March 25, 2005.
  32. 32.0 32.1 “Worldwide Circus Bans.” Animal Defenders International. Accessed October 12, 2019.
  33. Press, Associated, and La Paz. “Bolivia Bans All Circus Animals.” The Guardian, July 31, 2009, sec. World news.
  34. Press, Associated. “Correction: California-New Laws Story.” Washington Post. Accessed October 14, 2019.
  35. “ADI Educates Los Angeles City Council as Hundreds Protest Ringling Bros Circus.” Stop Circus Suffering, July 13, 2012.
  36. Noble, Breana. “‘These Are Cruel Acts’: PETA Protests Circus in Detroit.” Detroit News. Accessed October 13, 2019.
  37. “ADI and Local Group HARTE Campaign against Ringling Bros. to ‘Break the Chain’ on Circus Suffering.” Stop Circus Suffering, February 21, 2011.
  38. “Circus Protest Dates.” circusprotest. Accessed October 13, 2019.
  39. “Anti–Animal Circus Ads to Go Up as Opening-Night Protest Draws Near.” PETA, August 12, 2019.
  40. “Performing Animal Welfare Society -- PAWS.” Accessed October 13, 2019.
  41. “Our ongoing legal actions to release wild animals from circuses.” Accessed October 13, 2019.
  42. “About Cirque Du Soleil,” September 25, 2009.
  43. “Update: Kelly Miller Circus Goes Completely Animal-Free, With Great Public Support.” PETA, June 12, 2017.


This article was originally authored by Bethany Chester, with contributions from Greg Fuller The contents may have been edited since that time by others.