Animals in Circuses: Ringside Seats for a Spectacle of Cruelty

Circus elephantsAnimals don’t want to ride bicycles, stand on their heads, balance on balls or jump through rings of fire. Elephants, big cats, monkeys and other animals used in circuses perform tricks because they have no choice.

If circus audiences knew the truth about the violence and suffering that goes on behind the scenes, they would find these shows anything but entertaining.

Beaten Into Submission

Trainers often go to extreme lengths to make animals perform stunts in the ring. They beat elephants with bullhooks and shock them with electric prods. They hit big cats with sticks and drag them around by heavy chains on their necks. They restrain bears with tight collars and muzzles and whack them with long poles. They kick chimpanzees and smack them with riding crops.

Often, a barbaric regime of physical punishment begins when the animals are still babies. Baby elephants are forcibly removed from their mothers when they are 18 to 24 months old, breaking their spirits early in preparation for a lifetime of abuse.

A Lifetime of Confinement

Animals in circuses have often been taken from the wild and enslaved – solely for the purpose of “entertainment”. They are condemned to a sad and frustrating existence, living out their days in constant confinement, often in cramped and filthy cages.

Elephants, for example, will walk long distances, swim, explore, play and enjoy complex social relationships in the wild. But in the circus, chained inside tents or confined to lonely concrete enclosures, they are denied everything that is natural and important to them.

Most big cats in their natural habitat cover large areas, so when they live in captivity, they frequently exhibit stereotypic behaviour, such as pacing.

As the British Veterinary Association has said, “The welfare needs of non-domesticated, wild animals cannot be met within the environment of a travelling circus; especially in terms of accommodation and the ability to express normal behaviour”. In other words, animals forced to perform will always suffer – the only humane option is to keep them out of the circus altogether.

The Situation in the UK and Around the World

Keeping wild animals in circuses is to be banned in England from 2015. But around the world, the cruel show is still going on. The US, for example, is home to notorious elephant abusers such as Ringling Bros, while the atrocities documented in Indian circuses include animals being driven mad from confinement and kept in rusty cages without access to food or water.

What You Can Do

Only visit animal-free circuses such as world-renowned Cirque du Soleil, where you can marvel at the antics of clowns and acrobats who have chosen to become entertainers – far more fun than watching sad animals forced to perform against their will.


  • Austria, Bolivia, Finland, Singapore and Sweden have all implemented bans or prohibitions on wild-animal acts in circuses.
  • In the UK, 94 per cent of respondents to a government consultation made clear they wanted to see wild animal circuses banned entirely.
  • Circuses are a danger to the public as well as animals. Since 1990, PETA US has documented 65 human deaths and more than 130 injuries attributable to captive elephant rampages.