Stop Circus Suffering

Stop Circus Suffering USA: 5 The Animal Welfare Act

Part 5 of ADI’s “Stop Circus Suffering USA” report, discussing the Animal Welfare Act



The U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the federal law that regulates the commercial use and trade of animals for research and in exhibitions (carnivals, zoos and circuses), the pet trade and during transportation in commerce, and the protection of owners of animals from animal theft and resale (AWA, Section 1). The Act provides a system of licensing, regulation and inspection and sets minimum standards of care and humane treatment of animals used in these industries. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), enforces the AWA.

Circuses using performing animals fall under the definition of exhibitor in the AWA (S.2). Other sections of the Act regulate animal licensing (S.3) and records on the purchase, sale, transportation, identification and ownership of animals, as well as arrangements for inspections (S.10).

Section 13 outlines the humane standards for animals covered by the AWA. The Secretary of Agriculture applies these standards to the handling, care, treatment and transportation of animals. This includes housing, feeding, watering, sanitation, rest, ventilation, shelter from extremes of weather and temperature, adequate veterinary care, and separation by species. It also allows the Secretary to consult with outside experts. Therefore S.13 actually provides the outline for the detailed standards which are incorporated in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), also implemented by APHIS.

The Act further empowers the Secretary of Agriculture with the authority to publish such rules and regulations as he determines necessary to assure humane treatment of animals, although there is an obligation to develop such regulations in collaboration with other government departments who have an interest in the subject.

Section 29(a) of the Act allows the Secretary to apply to a court for an injunction, should he believe that an exhibitor of a circus animal, for example, is placing the health of an animal in serious danger, in violation of the AWA or its regulations or standards.

Although the system of licensing, inspection, and the USDAs laudable Animal Care Policies and Exhibitor Inspection Guide for APHIS inspectors lay down some positive welfare guidelines for traveling circuses, our study of the use of animals in circuses in the U.S. indicates that these are mostly unenforced or simply not implemented.

In addition, we find key deficiencies in the language and scope of the Act and the relevant Code of Federal Regulations, as well as the system of inspections that leave animals in traveling circuses exposed to suffering and abuse.

In relation to the use of animals in traveling circuses, therefore, the AnimalWelfare Act has failed in its main purpose: “(1)…to insure that animals intended for use in research facilities or for exhibition purposes or for use as pets are provided humane care and treatment;” and “(2) to assure the humane treatment of animals during transportation in commerce…”

Deficiencies in Administration, Regulation and Enforcement
The AWA describes minimum welfare standards for dogs and primates but not for other species in other commercial contexts, a huge omission. USDA and APHIS policy guidelines are not enough to bring about an overall improvement in the welfare of animals with traveling circuses. Section 16(a) describes the inspection and regulation protocol. However, a specific provision for annual inspections, follow-up inspections and enforcement applies only to research facilities. Worse still, is that the APHIS guidelines on inspections currently advise, “You do not have to inspect every circus or traveling exhibitor that exhibits in your territory” (APHIS Animal Care Resource Guide, Exhibitor Inspection Guide, 11/04 17.10.1).

Gross Negligence
Section 19(d) of the AWA determines that any exhibitor who knowingly violates any provision of the Act shall, on conviction, be subject to imprisonment for not more than one year or a fine of not more than $2,500, or both. The Act needs to be amended to provide specific sanctions in cases of gross negligence (gross breaches of the duty of care), which may lead to a violation of the humane standards of animal welfare provided by the Act.

Activities Exempted from the Scope of the Act
Many performing animal exhibitors are outside the scope of the AWA and therefore exempt from any animal protection enforcement (AWA S.2 (h); Title 9 Chapter 1, Part 1, S1.1, CFR). These include state and county fairs, livestock shows, rodeos, field trials, coursing events, purebred dog and cat shows, retail pet stores and any fairs or exhibitions intended to advance agricultural arts and sciences. These activities should be drawn under an updated Act, governed by specific regulations relevant to the particular activity.

Species Exempted from the Act
Many types of performing animals have been excluded from the legislation. S.2 (g) of the AWA defines the only species included in the legislation: dogs, cats, nonhuman primates, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits and other mammals. The Code of Federal Regulations excludes additional species: birds, horses not used for research, rats or mice for research, and farm animals (T9,Chap1,Pt1,S1.1). Finally, cold-blooded animals, such as snakes and alligators, are not included. In terms of animal welfare, as this report shows, these exclusions are arbitrary and unscientfic and they leave many animals commonly used in circuses, like parrots, doves, horses, ponies, camels, llamas and reptiles, outside of the protection of the Act.

An updated Animal Welfare Act should be comprehensive and include all animals in captivity, with fundamental animal welfare objectives written into the core of the legislation and regulations governing the use of animals in each industry or commercial context.

A nation can be judged by how it treats the weakest and most vulnerable individuals for which it has responsibility. The U.S. should lead the way, with comprehensive principles laid down for the treatment of other species living alongside us in human society.

International movement of circus animals: U.S. examples

Circuses and animal dealers export animals from the U.S. to appear in circuses around the globe. Animals imported from abroad are resold to circuses in other countries. America also buys and hires animals and acts from all over the world. It is time for the U.S. to help stop this animal traffic.

Shakira, the giraffe. From the U.S. to die in Colombia.
Shakira, the giraffe. From the U.S. to die in Colombia.


Karla:  Origin unknown.
Karla: Origin unknown.

Shakira, the giraffe
On October 9, 2006 an 8-month old male giraffe named Shakira arrived at Circo Africa de Fieras in Bogota, Colombia. Circus representatives said that they purchased him from “a zoo in Miami, Florida” for $50,000 and that he was en route to Circo Hermanos Gasca to be trained. Subsequent investigations revealed that he was actually supplied by a Texas-based animal dealer, Exoticos Salvajes.
Shakira had arrived in Colombia two days earlier, on Saturday October 7, but was not permitted to leave the airport until Monday 9, as the airport was closed over the weekend. While at the airport he was kept in a warehouse, in his box which measured approximately 5 feet x 8 feet x 9 feet. International Air Transport (IATA) regulations state: “Large giraffe are not recommended for air transport for animals that exceed an overall height of approx 1.50m (5ft.).” Shakira exceeded this height. Circo Africa de Fieras workers made a pen for him, which he survived in for just six days. He died at 3a.m. on October 15. A vet arrived at approximately 9a.m. to perform an autopsy and said that Shakira’s stomach was swollen from gas accumulation due to an excess of concentrated food that caused an obstruction of his digestive system. He was cut up, taken to a pet crematorium and cremated.
During this investigation, an ADI field officer filmed a trainer with Circo Africa de Fieras punching a chimpanzee called Karla (pictured) in the face and then beating her with a chain. At Circo Hermanos Gasca we witnessed another trainer beat and punch in the face, a chimpanzee called Panchito. Panchito was supplied to the circus from a dealer in Cuba. The origin of Karla is unknown; she was probably caught in the wild and is likely to have been trafficked through a number of countries.


Toto to a Chilean circus via the U.S.
Toto to a Chilean circus via the U.S.


Toto after his rescue by ADI
Toto after his rescue by ADI

Toto, the chimpanzee
27-year old Toto was snatched from the wild in Africa as a baby. The authorities believe that at about two or three years old, Toto and three other baby chimps were purchased in the U.S. by Chile’s Circus Konig. The other three died, leaving Toto alone for 20 years. He lived in a wooden packing crate about 3 feet wide, with bars on the front. He was chained by the neck when not performing. His act involved dressing up in human clothes, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. Toto’s only comfort during cold days and nights was to huddle beneath a small blanket. He slept surrounded by empty plastic bottles and sweet wrappers. ADI took legal action and seized Toto in 2003. His teeth were broken, his gums severely infected, and the canines had been pulled out. He had been castrated, and there were cigarette burns all over his body. He was taken by ADI to renowned chimp sanctuary Chimfunshi in Zambia, Africa, where he now lives with a new chimpanzee family.


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


  1. Pingback: Stop Circus Suffering USA: 1 Introduction | Stop Circus Suffering

  2. Karen Brown · 14 July 2008 at 9:00a

    It makes me cry to think of all the animals that are still suffering and all that have been so abused by people who don’t care. I’m going to do all I can to spread the word and make sure that everyone knows what is happening. Even if they say they don’t care I know there is a way to melt anyones heart with the images and stories of animals who have suffered and lived horrible lives.

    1. Jorja · 14 July 2008 at 9:00a

      this is so sad for the animals who suffer this horrible your right spread the word around so people can help

    2. asjdbas · 14 July 2008 at 9:00a

      I agree im also a noob

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