Stop Circus Suffering

Animals in Travelling Circuses: The Science on Suffering

The new study reviews the scientific evidence on the effects of transport and captivity on animals that confirms their welfare is compromised – and this is the case for both domesticated and non-domesticated species.

GBC tiger

Executive Summary

Most of us hate to see animals suffer and this is at the heart of the current debate of the Animal Welfare Bill about the welfare of animals in travelling circuses.

The new study reviews the scientific evidence on the effects of transport and captivity on animals that confirms their welfare is compromised – and this is the case for both domesticated and non-domesticated species.

The common indicators of stress – the hormonal and behavioural changes in the animals’ bodies as a result of transportation, which can result in compromised immune system and increased incidence of disease, weight loss, lowering of reproductive rates, and increased aggression are discussed.

Scientific studies of animals being transported – such as horses (McGreevy 2004) – in confinement or in captivity for other industries such as zoos and laboratories, can be read across to travelling circus environments.

Studies by Broom & Johnson detail the telltale signs of mental as well as physical stress in animals, when their coping mechanisms are taxed or even break down, leading to severe distress. The stereotypic behaviour they exhibit is seen as abnormal and an indicator of poor welfare.

ADI’s report uses such evidence to back up the results of its own empirical findings in UK circuses over the past ten years (most recent examples gathered in March and April of this year); a combination of observation data, videotape and photographs.

The overwhelming conclusion is that suffering is inherent in travelling circuses and not only restricted to wild or exotic species but evident in so-called domesticated species as well.

The report demonstrates the restriction of movement suffered by domestic animals such as horses, tethered inside stable tents for long periods of time. The big cats – lions and tigers – suffer equally. In transporter cages that measure approximately 2.5 m by 12 m, there can be as many as 5 tigers or 3 lions (ADI observations on 26, 27 & 29 March, 2006. Great British Circus: 9 tigers & 5 lions). When exercise enclosures are erected, they are not always used, or there are too many animals for the amount of space available.

The new report also includes new data on animals in travelling circuses during March and April 2006 – where animals were observed:

  • left in their transporters for 17.5 hours, when the journey had lasted just 3.5 hours;
  • Some lions and tigers remained in their transporter for 27 hours;
  • Others remained in their transporters for 4-5 hours, for a 2 hour journey;
  • Although exercise enclosures were made available, it can be days before they are erected, and then they are not always used
  • Some animals did not go out into exercise enclosures at all

At a time when the public recoils from stories of the live transportation of baby calves to the continent, the 1997 Transport of Animals Regulations fails to address the plight of UK circus animals as it exempts animals living on transporters from having rest periods and being unloaded.

It should be a reflection of a humane society to put an end to the suffering of circus animals and address the concerns, both scientific and empirical, that the restrictions of space, the mobility of equipment and facilities rob animals of the ability to behave as they would in their natural environment. The specialised behaviours of many of the species kept in circuses make it impossible to cater for them all and this is now scientifically demonstrated in this latest report.

ADI Recommendations for House of Lords debate on Animal Welfare Bill:

The Animal Welfare Bill states that an animal’s needs shall be taken to include–
(a) its need for a suitable environment,
(b) its need for a suitable diet,
(c) its need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns,
(d) any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals, and
(e) its need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

However, the circumstances to be taken into consideration of the above include–
(a) any lawful purpose for which the animal is kept, and
(b) any lawful activity undertaken in relation to the animal.

ADI would prefer to see a complete prohibition on the use of animals in travelling circuses, on grounds of welfare, on the face of the Bill.

However, if prohibitions must be under regulation then ADI believes that we must ensure that such regulations or code of practice will not negate the provisions listed in (a) to (e) of the “needs” paragraph.

There is no logical reason to treat a privately owned horse, or a tiger in a zoo, differently from their counterparts in a circus. Nor would it be ethically justified.

Many domestic species are currently exhibited in UK circuses, but in the eventuality of a ban on “certain non-domesticated species” (as announced by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)), it is highly probable that a greater variety of both domestic and wild or exotic species may be sourced by circuses in an attempt to circumvent the ban. It could also cause confusion about what is or is not allowed.

A circus touring Europe in April 2006 has in its menagerie 3 penguins, 2 snakes and piranhas, and previously included an octopus. Such acts could appear in the UK – in the past a shark show, sea lions and hybrids such as zebroids (zebra/donkey crosses) and tigers (lion/tiger crosses), have all toured the UK.

Already two major UK circuses, in clear defiance of the public and parliamentary mood, have said that they wish to add elephants and bears to their touring menageries in 2006.

ADI has been responsible for obtaining the evidence for almost all of the circus industry cruelty convictions to date. We fear that the principles for protection of animals laid own in the Bill will be seriously undermined if animal protection groups are left in the same position as now – that we must gather evidence and commence proceedings before a circus has left the area, or even the country.

Furthermore ADI is concerned that organisations such as ourselves will be obliged to gather evidence on every new species that appears in a circus.

ADI recommends something more simple:

  • The Secretary of State could licence only certain species for use in travelling circuses – reverse Defra’s proposal – prohibit the use of all animals in travelling circuses, and if felt necessary, make provision for the Secretary of State to allow certain acts, by animals of certain species, under licence.
  • This would correctly place the onus of evidence on the circuses – those who wish to use animals in travelling circuses would have to provide evidence of adequate arrangements for husbandry and welfare.
  • If good welfare provision can be demonstrated, the Secretary of State licences that particular species, or performance.
  • Given the small scale of the industry such a system would not be unduly problematic. By contrast retrospectively reviewing each species as it turns up with a circus would be, we believe, problematic and expensive.

Click here for a PDF of the report

Click here for the report in HTML


  1. Margaret Roberts · 9 May 2006 at 12:26a

    Animals need to be in their natural habitat not in a stupid circus very cruel and distressing for them

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