Are Animal Circuses Cruel?

Sometimes, human beings do not realize the enormity of the choices of life they are given. We are capable of thought, of the creation of beautiful things, capable of experiencing fear and wonder, horror and happiness, love and disgust, sadness and contempt and anger and grief. There are boundless possibilities, eternal exploits, to consider. But we do not always consider animals.

Generally, animals think very differently from us. They tend to have simple methods for making what is necessary for them to have in order to survive. Of course, the souls and personalities of animals seem to differ just as much among them as they do among us. Some are more complex-minded, some more quick-tempered, some more gentle. But whether they can all think and reason and make, like us, in all their own ways, is not the question. That is obvious. But can they suffer? Can they feel?


Of course, many animals endure enough as it is, in nature. Some survive, and some don’t. Just like us, they sicken and improve, eat and don’t eat, drink and don’t drink, live and die, love and hate, fear and enjoy. But . . . . it changes many things about the natural lives of animals when human beings decide to take a negative part in them. The incessant torment and suffering which some animals are made to endure is often caused by purposeful disrespect and misuse by human beings, sometimes because of their spite, sometimes their ignorance, sometimes their greedy or ‘harmless’ wish to seek out animals for participation in their own sick methods of entertainment. Of course, not all masters are bad masters. It is not always such a harrowing business when animals are taken to be trained by humans, but when the business is circuses, it is often very bad. Animals are abruptly taken from their homes and, after a bewildering journey, put in an alien environment where they find ample cause to be terrified and aggressive. Their instinct is to defend themselves, and they can see no point in most of the abuse leveled on them. Just like animals, not all people are the same. But many, whether by accident or on purpose, harm and hurt and kill animals and other human beings because they are not careful or compassionate. Lives of animals that could have been spent naturally in the Wild, whether peaceful and happy or not, I can’t say, are spent as forced captives in the agonizingly small and foreign prisons of our zoos and circuses. Do you not consider that cruel? It is as unnatural and frightening to them as it would be to you, if creatures from Mars had taken you away to be humiliated in cages and rings on their own strange planet.


Revealing what goes on to make circus animals do what they do, would shake the foundations of what an animal circus is supposed to be. It is meant to be a mystical and exciting show that causes wonder and awe in the minds of the observing audience members, and it is an old form of entertainment. For many, many years, hundreds of different crowds have watched hundreds of different circus shows, and expressed their boundless enthusiasm for the antics of the enormous elephants, the beautiful zebras and horses performing their wild and astounding tricks, the chimpanzees and their funny capers, the lions and tigers leaping fearlessly through hoops of fire. They wonder at the braveness and the intelligence of these animals, who previously they may have underestimated. They appreciate the show, and go away satisfied.

Well, yes, the animals who are taught these tricks are usually very brave and bright, but brave does not mean fearless, and intelligent does not infer that they understand what they are doing, and why. What the throng sees is a beautifully cut and ingenious show, but the training of the animals to make it appear so is a horrifying business. To the animals, the tricks may be meaningless, but the show is life or death. If they do not obey their masters, they are whipped and shocked and goaded by bullhooks. If a lion is too afraid to jump through a circle of hot fire, the more brutal methods of beating and striking are brought into play, that are to be feared even more than the fire. So the animals do not stand on their heads because they want to, but because they are afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t. What the audience sees as willing capers, are forced. Access to food and water is often limited. Bars restrict freedom of movement. Punishment, deprivation, and neglect depresses and frightens the animals. A peaceful sleep, a good meal, is unknown.


Training the animals is not at all a positive sight, and is usually hidden from public view so as to make the impression that the animals are pleasantly inclined to participate in the show. The training involves physical punishment, but what it leaves behind are more than scars on the flesh. Because they have endured violent training sessions in the past, the circus animals are aware that refusal to obey the orders of the trainers will result sooner or later in severe hurt. Just before entering the ring, while they are yet outside of public view, the trainers may deal their elephants a couple of exquisitely painful blows to remind them who their masters are, and that they will not tolerate disobedience of their commands. Contrary to the public’s ordinary view of the animal circus, it is a system ruled by hate and fury and dread, instead of willingness to obey.

These barbarian training procedures are not often documented, but it is a severe wound to the moral structure of circuses. Human beings as trainers to animals and as teachers of other human beings have ruined many minds and souls that could have been more beautifully molded. Animals in circuses suffer being routinely whipped, shocked by electric prods, and beaten by clubs and metal rods. Trainers often strike elephants with bullhooks or ankuses on the more sensitive and easily bloodied areas of their bodies, such as the skin around their eyes, under their chin, within their mouth and behind their ears and knees. It causes them much the same agony as it would cause anyone. Circus animals are often hit across the face to provoke fear and pain. Bears have had their noses broken and their paws burnt, just to teach them to walk on their hind legs when they are ordered to do so. A number of animals have even been drugged to make them more manageable.

Two of the more popular circuses, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, have been known to use some of the worst training procedures with elephants ever documented. Elephants have a similar life cycle to humans, and they care for their young much as we do. Some captive elephants, however, are forced to breed as young as eight years of age, which is like breeding a human being of roughly the same age. The mother elephant is often tied by three legs during the birth, and the babies are taken away immediately. This is the most savage and cruel and inhumane deed. A mother elephant is no less a mother than a mother human, a baby elephant no less her baby than a child is a human’s offspring. Ringling Bros. Circus has gone further, and had mother elephants chained by all four legs instead of three, to insure that the humans present would not be harmed. Even before they are weaned, the babies are removed to a separate area from their mothers, and are then chained for up to twenty-three hours a day. In the Wild, elephant babies often drink their mothers’s milk until they are five, and are seldom apart from them. But there is no acknowledgment of animal families in the circus. The baby elephants are tied up and beaten repeatedly so as to break their spirits, and this process is so brutal that Ringling Bros. will not allow it to be filmed.

But the training of circus animals is not the only severe punishment that they undergo. Constant confinement is as bad. Due to continuous travel in boxcars and trailers in any sort of weather, circus animals are often made to suffer captivity in cramped and filthy spaces for days at a time, sometimes in severe cold or heat, and often without access to food or water or veterinary care. Sometimes the weather they are forced to thrive in is unbearably alien to their natural environments, and they are occasionally made to endure weather so harsh that they run the nightmarish risk of overheating or freezing to death where they stand. Circus animals who have been born in the Wild must suffer being chained to one place for many hours each day, while they would have roamed many miles instead. Thus, it is not surprising that circus animals, facing restricted spaces and constant imprisonment, and denied the freedom of moving from one place to another or retaining the natural impulse to live and the interest in living, would lose their spirits and begin to act listless and restless and crazy.

Image result for cruelty of circus animals

Elephants are very social animals. Their bonds with their families and with other elephants are tight, and full of devotion. To have a mother elephant’s baby taken away from her upon birth, abruptly severs that natural bond, and the compassionate and lifelong relationship between mother and child that it would have become, is terminated. Every natural instinct and behavior is a subject to unnatural management and discipline. Under the strain of their experiences, many circus animals have become severely unhealthy and depressed, or aggressive and extremely dysfunctional. Things begin to be nightmarish. Captive elephants give way to such abnormal behavior as rocking and swaying and head-bobbing, and other repetitive movements. They are signs of extreme psychological distress. Elephants who breathe with their mouths open are usually in some sort of pain. Bears and big cats, often muzzled and tight-collared, sometimes very young, pace back and forth in captivity. Occasionally bears have been known to beat their heads against the cage. Biting the bars and mutilating themselves is another common reaction to the horrors of circus confinement.

And, occasionally, the animals have retaliated.

The cruel mastery of human beings over animals in circuses is a painful and obvious thing, and when the animals lash out it is chiefly because of self-defense. But it is the privilege of the hateful commanders to slash and beat the offending animals, and sometimes this has had the misfortune of happening before the eyes of children. Horrified on-lookers have witnessed the mauling of human beings by their victims, and some have paid the price themselves, when riding on the backs of exhausted and humiliated and badly mistreated elephants. These elephants are creatures who for years have been shocked and ripped open by their trainers, and they have come to recognize human beings as tormentors, and as an authority to be hated and feared. Some elephants are known to have suddenly snapped, and gone on furious rampages that always resulted in brutal tragedy, crashing into buildings and sometimes killing and trampling their captors and oppressors under their feet. They were always in the right, because a circus animal who mistreats a human being has been mistreated before, and that is the reason for their sudden assaults. In Vietnam, an eleven-year-old girl was trampled and killed by a chained elephant in a travelling circus, whom she had been trying to feed. It did not matter if she meant well or not. The elephant’s view of human beings had been molded by whip and prod. In China, a tiger savagely tore an eight-year-old child to death before the eyes of on-lookers. But as brutal a deed as it seems, it was nevertheless a deed born of mistreatment and desperation and instinct. On August 20, 1994, an elephant called Tyke, who had been hurt and abused for years by the circus, could no longer bear the endless confinement and punishment she suffered. She turned upon her trainers in the ring and knocked them down, then with her trunk and feet rolled and pushed and trampled them. As they lay hurt on the floor, she bolted for the entrance, followed by several cautious people. Outside, she effortlessly butted open the chain-link gate, which was being locked by a man, and for a moment after she sent him flying she rolled him about on the ground spitefully with her trunk and feet, much the same as she had done with the trainers, until the gunshots of policemen caused her to turn tail once more and run away across the streets. Again and again she was shot, during the half-hour or so that the policemen chased her, until finally she lay dying and struggling on the ground, enduring the pain of more and more bullets entering her body. It took her nearly two hours to die there on the street, and she was shot eighty-six times.

Some circuses have banned exotic animals born in the Wild, and use domesticated animals that are more accustomed to human presence and command. But the question is not of where they were born. Beating a domesticated animal is no less cruel than beating a wild one, or a human being. Many humans are more ‘brutes’ than the ‘brutes’ themselves—-that is to say, animals—-and many are pitiful cowards, in the way that they take the wrath inflicted on them by other human beings and turn it on weaker creatures, specifically animals. The whole ridiculous business makes a mockery of the sentience of living beings, and their rights to freedom, and from mistreatment.

And, so . . . . ?

What will you do? What to do about the starving horses, the aggressively beaten lions and bears, the maltreated dogs? What to do about the elephants who are driven mad by confinement and cruelty, the mothers separated from babies, the tigers wounded and the zebras dying? Will you make light of the matter? Some might say, “Oh, it’s easy! Feed the horses, give the babies back to the mothers, heal the tigers, resurrect the zebras.” It’s all very simple to them. Well, but you can’t do some of those things. You can’t restore a dead dog to life, or take back every memory of every beating inflicted upon them. But . . . . you can react to a couple things that your fathers and forefathers, your friends and acquaintances, have reacted to very differently, and more cruelly. You could very well learn from their mistakes, and, if you cannot un-beat an animal, then—-why not leave them where they began, in the first place? Let them begin their lives all over again, and give them a chance. Only, this time let it be in the Wild.

Let us see if they are happier that way.

White tiger in cage

Note: none of these images belong to me.
Thank you for reading!

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