Stop Circus Suffering

Stop Circus Suffering USA: 3 Pilot Study: Animals in Traveling Circuses in the U.S.

Part 3 of ADI’s “Stop Circus Suffering USA” report, discussing ADI’s Pilot Study of Animals in Traveling Circuses

Three month old tiger cub hit in the face, to “behave”, Sterling & Reid Circus.

ADI studies the use of animals in traveling circuses all over the world. Methods used include observations, videotape and photography by our field officers, who work undercover in circuses. We relate our findings to the published scientific evidence on animal welfare and behavior, to inform government or administrative decision-making (see appendix).

Together, these studies have revealed consistencies in working practices throughout the industry. Indeed the differences in working practices, animal care and training methods between the circus industries of Europe, South and North America differ in little more than presentational ways. This is not surprising, given that animal living quarters need to be completely portable so any scope for development is very limited. The tricks being taught to the animals are broadly the same; presenters and animals move throughout the industry, and the timing of shows follows the normal pattern of the working week and weekends. Trainers frequently come from Europe and South America to present animals here in the U.S.

The United States is a key circus industry base with global connections. We therefore considered that it was important to conduct a short pilot study of the U.S. circus industry, with a view to using our data and expertise to assist and inform decision-making at the local and federal government levels.

ADI field officers tracked seven major U.S. traveling circuses, one static circus in Florida, and a static circus festival in Wisconsin. The traveling circuses moved through California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia in 2003, 2004 and 2005. These were selected at random and provide a representative sampling of the different circus operations in the U.S.

We found a defensive industry in which staff instruct the public that video cameras or videophones are not allowed, they block the view of people filming, and they conduct searches. One trainer was observed checking who was watching before giving an elephant a savage beating. Our field officers observed a range of animal abuse and poor welfare.

3.1 Physical and Social Deprivation

  • Severe confinement and restriction of natural behaviors among all species observed including elephants, tigers, monkeys and ponies.
  • Lack of free exercise among the species observed.
  • Isolation of herding species like zebras.
  • Chaining of elephants for most of the day, and for entire days when they were not performing, restricting their movements to a few steps backwards or forwards.
  • Bare chains used on elephants legs. Little apparent effort to ensure that the locations the circuses used were suitable for the animals needs.
  • Tigers living in cages on the backs of trucks, with space per animal little larger than the animals themselves.
  • Ponies not given food and water for up to eight hours while giving rides to children.
  • Lack of free access to water, especially for elephants.
  • Excessive periods in trucks, before, during and after the journey.
  • A reptiles mouth was taped shut in order to allow him to be used for photographs.

3.2 Physical Abuse

  • Elephant hooks (ankuses) used universally to control elephants.
  • Elephant hook used to punish elephants.
  • Electric shocks given to elephants during training sessions.
  • Electric shocks applied to the stomachs of elephants as they walked to the big top.
  • An elephant hacked in the leg with a golf club so that she fell to her knees.
  • Elephants beaten with a hosepipe and broom handle.
  • A tiger cub smashed in the face to make him “behave.”
  • Elephants crying out and trumpeting as they were forced to pull big top tent poles and vehicles. {*} An elephant dragged down with vicious blows and then kicked in the face as she lay on the ground.

3.3 Animal Health and Welfare

  • 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 Coca-Cola. She was also seen eating plastic bags, cans, pieces of rubber and other debris, sometimes provided by the public.
  • A horse allowed to eat debris, like plastic bags.
  • Disturbed stereotypic behavior, such as head bobbing and swaying among elephants and pacing by tigers.

Public Safety

There were also issues of public safety. We found generally poor containment of animals and/or restriction of public access to them. Both animals and members of the public are at risk when animal facilities and supervision are poor.

For example when an elephant enclosure adjoined a school playing field, there was only an electric tape, no staff member permanently on hand and no secondary barrier. In another instance, members of the public were vulnerable when feeding an elephant. One elephant had learned to test the electric fence around her enclosure and made repeated attempts to escape. When she managed to escape, she was recaptured by workers with elephant hooks. She was punished by being chained by the leg to a truck. When confined she would throw hay, dung and stones at both workers and the public. Another cause for concern were elephants being walked twice a day down a road used by traffic. One circus providing elephant rides, was walking them alongside cages full of tigers. Public safety can be an important animal welfare issue, since the security and contentment of the animals is dependant upon good accommodations and supervision when the public has access to them.

The animal suffering outlined in this report is part of a pattern of the circus industry globally. However, there are factors in the U.S. that increase the stresses, strains, suffering and ultimately the abuses that the circus animals endure.

Observations from the pilot study appear throughout this report in the panels.

Profile of Species Found in U.S. Circuses

The aim of this table is to provide a profile of the different species being used in U.S. circuses during our observations. It helps to provide a picture of the number and species of animals that might appear at traveling shows on any given day. A head count was taken of animals in our sample of nine circuses, with the data here representing the highest number of different animals observed on a single day at a single circus. The figure given for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is for a single touring unit in 2008 this circus has three shows touring under the unit names Red, Blue and Gold. Head counts for this table took place during visits in 2004, 2005, 2006.

Total Number of Animals

  • Bailey Brothers Circus 34
  • Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers Circus 35
  • Hanneford Family Circus 11
  • Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus 78
  • Circus Royale 20
  • Shrine Circus 15
  • Sterling and Reid Circus 62
  • UniverSoul Circus 19
  • Circus World, Wisconsin 47

Species used in sample of nine US circuses 321 animals

  • Alligator/caiman 7
  • Alpaca 1
  • Cow 6
  • Camel (Dromedary, Bactrian) 9
  • Caracal lnyx 2
  • Cat (domestic) 7
  • Dog 51
  • Elephant (African 9, Asian 22) 31
  • Emu 2
  • Goat 44
  • Horse/pony/donkey,1/mule,1 73
  • Kangaroo 1
  • Leopard 4
  • Lion 1
  • Llama 10
  • Monkey 7
  • Panther/ black leopard 1
  • Pig 1
  • Sheep 5
  • Snake 10
  • Tiger (Bengal 25, White 11) 36
  • Zebra 12

Comparison of the Use of Wild/Exotic and Domesticated Species

This sample indicates a high percentage of wild and exotic species (elephants and tigers are especially popular 20% of all animals in the sample), compared to domesticated species, such as dogs and ponies.

  • Domesticated species 58%
  • Wild/exotic species 42%


Read the Executive Summary of the Report.

1 Introduction
2 The Traveling Environment
3 Pilot Study: Animals in Traveling Circuses in the U.S.
4 The Scientific Evidence
5 The Animal Welfare Act
6 Recommendations for Action
7 Appendix: Public Opinion
8 References

Leave a comment on this story

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.