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the circus

On March 5 2015 the Associated Press reported that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, owned by parent company Feld Entertainment, Inc., will phase out its captive elephant acts by 2018.

Elephant lovers around the nation are dancing at the news that, soon, elephants who belong in the wild will no longer have to dance for the Ringling Bros. circus.

​"Elephants in captivity are just shells of themselves. One can not comprehend the psychological, emotional and physical suffering elephants and all animals endure while in a circus. It's a life of misery, heartache and suffering," said Ann Lewis, Vice President of Elephants DC. "I applaud Ringling Bros.' decision. It's long overdue and I hope this is a change all circuses will embrace not only for elephants but for all animals."

While the modern day circus has its roots in performances developed during the Roman Empire, it officially arrived in the United States in 1793 in Philadelphia when an equestrian names John Ricketts opened a one-ring circus in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Circuses began to travel in the early 1800s with the introduction of the railroad and Manifest Destiny, spreading Americans westward and the one-ring sheltered by a portable canvas tent was replaced by stationary wooden buildings.

The popularity of the circus waxed and waned until 1871 when P.T. Barnum debuted a circus featuring exotic animals from all over the world. As the crowds grew and the money poured in, the circus went from one-ring to three-rings with profits growing as more and more wild animals were kidnapped from their families and conscribed into service.

Soon canvas tents were traded in for indoor stadiums and arenas, with the largest of this type of circus, Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus owned by the Feld family alone generating an estimated $1 billion in annual revenues in 2013, according to Forbes magazine.

The main problems with circuses today center around what has to be done to wild animals to make them perform and the living conditions that all of these Circus Animals have to endure to travel from town to town. The plight of Circus Elephants is especially disturbing.

These animals, described by The New York Times Magazine as “profoundly social creatures” are self-aware, intelligent, display emotions, communicate, mourn their dead, can even use tools and in the wild are on the move for 18 hours or so per day.

By contrast, circus elephants spend about 11 months of the year travelling to stadiums and arenas in various modes of transportation where they are subjected to extreme temperatures, only to be chained or confined once again upon their arrival, often standing and eating in their own excrement in tiny pens with concrete floors.

Since the tricks that the elephants are forced to perform are unnatural and oftentimes painful, one wonders, “what would it take for an Elephant Trainer to get an 8,000-pound elephant to perform tricks like sitting up and standing on their heads?”  

In most circuses, animals are trained through the use of intimidation and physical abuse. Former circus employees have reported seeing animals beaten, whipped and denied food and water, all to force them to learn their routines. Animals are taught that not obeying the trainer will result in physical abuse.

Interestingly, in the United States, no government agency monitors animal training sessions. Standard practice in the circus industry is the use of bullhooks (a tool resembling a fireplace poker with a wood or metal handle and a sharp tip on the other end with both ends used to inflict pain as it is applied to the most sensitive spots on an Elephant’s body) and other objects to poke, prod, strike, shock and hit animals in order to “train” them.

According to Sam Haddock, the Ringling Whistle blower behind the expose, Ringling Brothers Circus breaks the spirit of elephants when they're vulnerable babies who should still be with their mothers. Sam Haddock was an elephant handler who worked at Ringling's breeding center in Polk City, Florida and was heavily involved in training baby elephants at Ringling. He came to regret his career choice later in life and shortly before his death, provided PETA with never-before-seen photos to share with the public and help elephants. .

Unsuspecting parents planning a family trip to the circus don't know about the violent training sessions with ropes, bullhooks, and electric shock prods that elephants endure.

Parents never see what goes on behind the scenes at a breeding center in central Florida like Ringling's Bros., where frightened and still-nursing baby elephants are captured rodeo-style, and attached to a larger elephant, and dragged away from their mothers. What follows is intense and violent training sessions - often called “the crush” - that last for several hours a day where baby elephants are wrestled, stretched out, chained, slammed to the ground, gouged with bullhooks, and shocked with electric prods. Then the “correction process” for the baby elephants starts where they are tied up and beaten repeatedly to break their spirit. Ringling Bros. circus trainers cruelly force baby elephants to learn tricks. Once baby elephants are broken, the real training begins and their lives enslaved to circuses begin. Life for wild animals like Elephants in the circus means spending virtually 96% of a lifetime spent in chains, especially while travelling.  

While traveling, circus animals can spend an average of 26 hours per day during 48 weeks of the year in box cars and vehicles lacking climate control. Traveling from town to town is stressful for circus animals—they are separated from their social groups and intensively confined or chained for extended periods of time with no access to food, water, or veterinary care and forced to stand or lie in their own waste. It’s no surprise that many animals suffer psychological effects Repetitive and often destructive behaviors such as obsessive swaying, bobbing, chewing, sucking, weaving, rocking, and licking are common in circus animals.  

Because of their forced immobility, circus animals may develop arthritis or other joint problems. While circus animals have the right to be protected and treated humanely under the Animal Welfare Act(AWA), there are less than 100 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors assigned to monitor the 12,000 circus-related facilities in America resulting in minimal oversight. This lack of oversight makes the record UDSA $270,000 fine of Ringling Bros. in 2011 for AWA violations all the more conspicuous. Since AWA fines are negligible (what’s $270,000 to a business with annual revenues in the 1 billion dollar range?) many circuses include the fines in the cost of doing business.

In numerous dangerous incidents since 2000, elephants have bolted from circuses, running through streets, crashing into cars and people into buildings, attacking members of the public, and in some cases handlers have been injured and even killed. A recent incident occurred in March of 2014 in St. Charles, Mo. where authorities reported that three elephants escaped from their handlers at the Moolah Shrine Circus and damaged several vehicles in the parking lot before they were recaptured. The report by TV station KSDK that after the attempted escape the animals were “resting comfortably in their compound" and “got the night off” belies the reality of what these elephants faced upon their capture, and the conditions they were fleeing.

Although the issues regarding circus cruelty have gained much-needed attention in recent years, circus animals still suffer from lives of confinement, social deprivation and violent methods of training and a stalled legislative environment. With the rise of technology and the use of social media, the cruel and barbaric practices employed by travelling wild animal circuses have been exposed by many sources including:

Worldwide, over 20 countries have adopted national legislation prohibiting or restricting the use of wild and exotic animals in circuses, with hundreds of bans in place worldwide. In these places, circuses are a thing of the past, outlawed as Human Slavery was in the USA in 1865. Countries around the world including the Bolivia, Peru, Greece, Cyprus, Paraguay, Columbia, Netherlands, Slovinia, Costa Rica, Israel and Singapore, have banned wild animal circuses completely. Other countries like the UK, Austria, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, France, India, Australia and New Zealand have either partial bans, or cities or municipalities where bans have been enacted.

In the United States, Los Angeles has come the closest to banning exotic animal circuses in October of 2013, with the City Council instead banning bullhooks, the sharp-tipped tool used to train and keep elephants under control. Baseball bats, ax handles, pitchforks and other implements used on the pachyderms would also be banned. The ban takes effect at the end of 2015.

National legislation, The Travelling Exotic Animal Protection Act (TEAPA) was introduced in Congress in 2011, launched by Animal Defenders International (ADI) and the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and was the culmination of 18 months of painstaking drafting and preparation. Congressman Jim Moran(VA-8th) introduced the bill, which would amend the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) so that no exhibitor may allow the participation of an exotic or wild animal in an animal act if that animal had traveled in a mobile housing facility in the previous 15 days, effectively banning wild animal circuses. The bill has gained Congressional co-sponsors but has not yet been passed. Several states are considering similar bans.

With opportunities to observe wild animals like Elephants widely available with television programming on networks like The Animal Plant and National Geographic, the argument that Circuses are an educational conservation activity that would otherwise be unavailable has lost any of the validity that it might once have had. Similarly, the rising popularity of animal free circuses like Cirque Du Soliel supports the case that animal circuses as entertainment may be becoming obsolete as well.

Hopefully U.S. animal circuses like Ringling Brothers, Cole Brothers Circus, Frazen Brothers Circus, George Carden Circus, Hawthorn Corporation, Hendricks Brothers Circus, Jordan World Circus, Kelly Miller Circus, Liebel Family Circus, Royal Hanneford Circus, Shrine Circus, Tarzan Zerbini Circus, UniverSoul Circus, and Walker Bros. Circus will realize that the time for the use of wild animals in circuses has past.

As Nicole Feld of Ringling Bros said in her Forbes interview in March of 2013, "We realize that the circus has survived this long because it's always been able to adapt and be contemporary."

Hopefully through awareness and education wild animal circuses will be a thing of the past, confined to a bad chapter in history, like Human Slavery. If not, circuses will have to be closed down, also like Slavery, through legislation.

Sources: PETA, Humane Society, Born Free, ASPCA, Born Free, PAWS, IFAW, AnimalCircuses, DOSomething, FriendsofAnimals, SayNOtoAnimalsinCircuses, RinglingBeatsAnimals, ForbesMagazine, PBS, CircusProtest, Mother Jones, AnimalDefendersInternational, New York Times, OneGreenPlanet, LA Times,, FederalCircusBill.oeg, TV station KSDK, BreaktheChainUS, In Defense of Animals


Austria: From 2005 wild animal circuses banned in 4 provinces, 5 others allow lions and tigers only. Brazil: State of Rio de Janeiro ban on circus acts using animals in May 2002. Chile: In 2003, ADI worked with government officials to seize a chimpanzee that had been with a circus for 20 years ­ living in a crate. It should be noted that in the UK, this animal could not have been saved. Columbia: Two major cities, including the capital Bogota, have banned the use of animals in circuses. Costa Rica: National ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. France: The prefect of Nevers in central France recently banned animal acts. In November, a French court ordered that a circus hippo be confiscated from the circus where she had been cruelly treated and placed in the care of ADI. Greece: Patras has banned animal circus acts. India: Federal prohibition on the exhibition and training of five species of performing animals for entertainment: tigers, monkeys, bears, panthers and lions. Israel: National ban on wild animals in circuses from 1995. In 2005, Tel Aviv banned all animal circus acts. Singapore: National ban on wild animals in travelling circuses effective from January 2002. Australia: Prohibitions in force against exotic animal acts in 14 municipal jurisdictions in Western Australia, in 1 in South Australia, 8 in New South Wales. New Zealand: Regional and city councils with bans: Wellington, Nelson, Dunedin
"We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.” 
― Albert Schweitzer