Stop Circus Suffering

Animals in Traveling Circuses: The Science on Suffering

ADI discusses the effects of captivity and transport on animals with traveling circuses and makes recommendations for legislation.

Elephants, UniverSoul Circus


This new report from Animal Defenders International, U.S. Inc., (ADI) discusses the effects of captivity and transport on animals with traveling circuses and makes recommendations for legislation.

ADI argues that, given the circumstances of constant travel, limited facilities and pressure to make animals do things that they are unwilling to do, suffering and sometimes abuse is inevitable in U.S. traveling circuses.

ADI in the U.S. collaborates with other ADI organizations and experts worldwide. Drawing together our studies of daytoday animal care practices with the science on the effects of captivity and transport, we make the case that animals in circuses belong in the past, to a time when humans were ignorant about the other species that share our planet. Now, with currentday understanding of the intelligence, environmental and emotional needs of other species, we have no excuse to treat them in a way that degrades a civilized, advanced society.

No one is saying end circuses. Rather, lets take animals out of circuses and let humans do the entertaining.

Some key findings from our worldwide studies of circus practices:

  • Horses and ponies spend up to 96 percent of their time tied with short ropes in stalls, or tethered to trailers. Exercise is limited and frequently is just the time in the ring.
  • Tigers and lions spend between 75 and 99 percent of their time in severely cramped cages on the backs of trailers. So called exercise cages, if used, add little more space, and time available to use them is limited.
  • Elephants spend 58 to 98 percent of their time chained by at least one leg, and generally both a front and hind leg.
  • Circuses commonly chain elephants overnight, either in tents or trailers; as a result, many hours of each day are spent chained.
  • Elephant enclosures with circuses are inadequate, and the regime of chaining, being prepared for the show, performing and giving rides means free exercise time is very limited.
  • Animals in circuses suffer a poor environment and long, arduous journeys.
  • Extended periods being tied up, chained, or caged with no freedom of movement results in abnormal behaviors that indicate these animals are suffering as a result of a poor environment and welfare provision.

Our study of nine sampled U.S. circuses has revealed similar attitudes and practices to other circuses around the world. it is therefore essential that legislatiors give consideration to prohibit the use of animals in travelling circuses, and outlaw the use of violence during training.

Welfare and Suffering

We also define what we mean by animal welfare and suffering and we have suggested a definition that could be used as a core principle for any new legislation.

An animal’s welfare includes its physical and mental state. Good animal welfare implies both fitness and a sense of wellbeing.

The welfare of an animal can be assessed on whether it has control over its environment and can move about to exercise its body and mind.

ADI supports the Five Freedoms, which define animal welfare as:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  • Freedom to express normal behavior
  • Freedom from fear and distress

The Traveling Environment

The traveling environment creates its own animal welfare issues and challenges, these include:

  • Portable accommodations, small facilities, restricted space; lack of exercise and restriction of movement results in poor animal welfare.
  • Frequent transportation, long periods of time in trucks and trailers, sometimes much longer than the actual journey itself waiting for facilities to be erected this confined existence results in poor welfare, abnormal behaviors and therefore suffering.
  • Exercise enclosures, if erected, are frequently not available to some or all of the animals due to pressure of time, space, or aggressive animals who cannot be exercised with others.
  • Public safety issues; inadequate safety measures, public safety necessitates restriction of animal freedom.
  • Control of animals and potential for conflict; large and dangerous animals being moved across open ground to perform often results in abuse due to time pressure on workers and fears for public safety.
  • The sheer size of the U.S. means that once animals leave their permanent facility, they are soon well beyond the point of no return, so if they become sick or injured, or if pregnant, they are likely to remain on the road.

Disturbed stereotypic behaviors indicating poor welfare and therefore suffering, for example weaving, head bobbing and swaying among elephants and pacing by tigers was observed in U.S. circuses.

The Pilot Studies

There are currently at least sixteen major U.S. animal circuses, some with multiple units that travel separately. The welfare issues described in the report are illustrated with the findings of a short series of studeies of nine randomly selected animal circuses, using over 300 animals. Seven were traveling circuses, one was static, and one a circus festival.

We found physical and social deprivation:

  • Severe confinement lack of free exercise and restriction of natural behaviors among all species observed including elephants, tigers, monkeys and ponies.
  • Isolation of herding species like zebras.
  • Chaining of elephants for most of the day, restricting their movements to a few steps backwards or forwards.
  • Tigers living in cages on the backs of trucks, with little space per animal.
  • Lack of free access to water, especially for elephants.
  • Long, arduous journeys.
  • Excessive periods in trucks and trailers, before, during and after the journey.
  • Animals cared for by untrained minimumwage workers, under time pressure, not understanding the species they are dealing with. The result: shouting, banging bars, threatening, hitting and whipping by the handlers.

Animal control methods (and some instances of abuse) recorded included:

  • Elephant hook (bull hook or ankus) used to control elephants.
  • Elephant hook used to punish elephants.
  • Electric shocks to elephants during training sessions.
  • Electric shocks to the stomachs of elephants as they walked to the big top.
  • Elephants beaten with a hosepipe and broom handle. A tiger cub smashed in the face to make him behave.
  • An elephant dragged down and kicked in the face as she lay on the ground. Observations on animal health and welfare included: Disturbed stereotypic behaviors indicating poor welfare and suffering. An elephant continued to perform with an open sore on her face.
  • A pony with a bleeding leg continued to give rides to children.
  • Ponies reported with, for example, swollen eye, breathing problems, walking problems or in need of veterinary attention.
  • An elephant fed cotton candy and CocaCola. She was also seen eating plastic bags, cans, pieces of rubber and other debris, sometimes provided by the public.

The Scientific Evidence on Suffering

The scientific literature on the effects of captivity, confinement and transportation on animals in a range of industries such as zoos, farming, laboratories and sport is discussed. The abnormal, repetitive behaviors (some are called stereotypies) seen when animals are suffering from their environment is described.

All together, this evidence demonstrates that whether of an exotic/wild or domestic species, animals in traveling circuses are likely to suffer from the effects of constant travel, poor facilities, and limited provision for their welfare:

  • Transport has been shown to cause many indicators of stress including increased heart rate, raised hormone levels, lowered immunity to disease, hormone levels that affect pregnancies, weight loss, aggression and stereotypic behaviors.
  • limited space and inadequate care make it immpossible for normal behaviors, increased aggression, increased susceptibility to disease, hormone changes and increased mortality.

Inappropriate social groupings cause several negative effects on animals:

  • Isolation or separation from companions leads to complex changes in behavior, including a decreased interest in surroundings, apathy, stereotypies, increased heart rate, vocalizations and higher levels of physiological stress.
  • Animals forced to live in close proximity with one another show a greater frequency of fighting and competitive behaviors and a greater incidence of stereotypies.
  • When different species are mixed or forced to live in close proximity to one another they exhibit a range of avoidance behaviors and increases in heart rate and other indicators of physiological stress, including spending more time in a state of alertness.
  • When predators are in close proximity to prey, the prey shows anxiety behaviors, changes in their nervous systems, a suppression of feeding and grooming behaviors.

The scientific evidence is clear if an animal has no control over its environment, and cannot exercise its body and mind this can result in repetitive, abnormal behaviors. This indicates compromised welfare, and suffering.

Given the circumstances, it is simply not possible for traveling circuses to provide animals with the space and quality of environment they need to maintain optimum physical and psychological health.

The abnormal behaviors observed in animals in the U.S. justify a call for an end to the use of animals in traveling circuses.

The Animal Welfare Act and Public Opinion

The limitations of the current Animal Welfare Act and the licensing and inspection responsibilities of the USDA are discussed. We make recommendations for updating the Act and for consultation with animal welfare experts to produce legally enforceable codes of practice to improve standards of care.

Countries where local, regional or national bans are in place include Ireland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Costa Rica, Singapore, Israel, India, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Greece, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia. National legislation on circus animals is currently under consideration in Bolivia and Peru. Banning the use of animal acts from circuses has been tested politically in many countries. The policy has been successfully enforced and is popular with the public.

Read the full Report.


  1. jonah · 14 July 2008 at 9:00a

    what are the feeding situations?

  2. Sophia · 14 July 2008 at 9:00a

    i am pretty sure they don’t give them a good amount or even feed them at all but im not sure.

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