Stop Circus Suffering

Stop Circus Suffering USA: 2 The Traveling Environment

Part 2 of ADI’s “Stop Circus Suffering USA” report, describing the traveling environment.

Reluctance on moving day. Bailey Brothers Circus.

We examine here the issues and challenges raised by the need to adapt both animal accommodation and animal care practices for the traveling environment. These include:

2.1 Long tours, limited periods in each location
2.2 Portable accommodations 2.3 Challenges presented by frequent transportation
2.4 Extended periods in transporters 2.5 Public safety: animals in close proximity to people
2.6 Control of animals and potential for conflict While attempts may be made to manage these challenges, we submit that the practical difficulties they present are an integral part of the traveling circus and therefore cannot be completely eradicated.

2.1 Long tours, limited periods in each location

Traveling circuses, by definition, spend most of the year on tour, usually eight to nine months. U.S. circuses may spend longer on the road than any other circuses in the world. For example, the Bailey Brothers Circus started a tour in Mexico before heading into the U.S. and did not return to their permanent quarters for almost eleven months. They took a sixweek break and then departed again.

Generally, a circus will spend between a few days and two weeks at a particular location, sometimes longer. For example, during May 2008, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Gold Tour planned to visit seven locations, the Red Tour three locations, and the Blue Tour five locations. During April 2004, The Bailey Brothers Circus stopped at eleven different sites in four states: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.

These animals are therefore spending almost their entire lives in temporary accommodations, suffering long and arduous journeys, with little free time and little opportunity to express their normal behavior patterns.

2.2 Portable accommodations

A circus needs to be able to set up and dismantle accommodation on a weekly basis. Caging and fencing therefore, need to be collapsible, small and relatively lightweight. The very nature of the business puts restrictions on animal facilities. Even when circuses are moving from one fixed venue to another, circus personnel must dismantle and set up all of the animal and business facilities in the new location.

It might be argued that if an unlimited number of large vehicles were available, large and complex animal environments might be made portable. However this would involve a cost to the animals’ welfare, as they would probably have to spend even longer waiting to be unloaded as the workers erected the more extensive and complex enclosures and caging.

The character of the site can also have an impact on animal welfare, e.g., parking lots or industrial areas. Animals tied on concrete or asphalt will suffer a poorer environment than those in a field. Busy downtown activity adds to the circus noise, lights, visitors and vehicles that can disturb animals attempting to rest. The proximity of incompatible species, such as predators in sight of prey species, raises welfare issues. Such compromises can be difficult to avoid in small spaces.

2.3 Challenges of frequent transportation

On a regular, often weekly basis animals must be loaded onto transporters and driven to a new location. The common circus routine involves animals being loaded in the late afternoon on a Sunday, remaining in their transporters until all of the tents and equipment are packed and loaded and the circus is driven to a new location, and they are not unloaded until the next morning or even afternoon 9.

It is inevitable that some animals will become sick or injured during the touring season. Some will travel while pregnant and some will give birth on the road. At best, sick or injured animals face a long journey back to the circus’ permanent quarters to recover, but it is more common for the animal to continue the tour. 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.” In the event of sickness or serious injury, an animal is effectively compelled to remain on tour.

2.4 Extended periods in transporters

Animals suffer extended periods in vehicles due to the need to dismantle and pack cages, tents and equipment for travel and then, on arrival at the new location, unload and set up, before finally unloading the animals. Thus, even a short journey can entail several hours in vehicles for the animals. This extended confinement represents poor animal welfare, causing suffering. Our observations include: a Shetland pony in a trailer for 253/4 hours when the journey was 5 hours; lions and tigers in cages for 19 hours for a 51/2 hour journey; elephants in a trailer for 191/2 hours for a 5 hour journey; a bear in a trailer for 39 hours with just one 15 minute break because the circus was relocating and setting up; camels in a trailer for 14 hours for a 31/2 hour journey; a sick elephant in her trailer for nearly 18 hours for a 45 minute journey. A circus which boasted that its animal welfare policy limited journeys to 25 miles and that “the whole process is over in less than two hours” was spot checked and found to be keeping horses on transporters for almost 5 hours 9.

When animals are moving to and from the circus to fulfil additional commitments – for example elephants giving rides at fairs – it can significantly increase time spent in transporters. For example in the U.S., the Swain elephants with Bailey Brothers Circus spent a whole day inside the trailer, traveling to a Hindu festival to provide rides. Two days later, they traveled from Austin to Kansas and did not leave the trailer for the entire day. As a result, in a 72-hour period they only left their transporter for six hours, and that had been to give rides at the festival. Following this they were driven to Butler, Missouri and were not let out of their trailer until noon. One elephant was immediately chained up outside and only released for the afternoon show.

2.5 Public Safety: animals in close proximity to people

The temporary nature of traveling animal circuses and the close proximity of dangerous animals to the public mean that these shows can never be entirely safe. Around the world, circus workers and members of the public, including children, have been killed and maimed by circus animals. Lions, tigers and elephants have all escaped.

The 2007 tragedy at the San Francisco Zoo showed how agile big cats can escape even a purpose-built facility, yet in Minnesota we saw tigers with Shrine Circus performing in an uncovered ring cage. In New York state three elephants with Circus Royale performed at a venue which necessitated them walking from their enclosure down a public road twice a day. Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus travel on their own train, which means all the animals need to be marched through public and traffic to the venue – good for publicity but not necessarily highway safety. Elephant enclosures were basic and lacked secondary fencing and at Bailey Brothers Circus in Oklahoma and Kansas – one elephant repeatedly escaped. Members of the public were able to approach and feed the Bailey Brothers Circus elephants, which were often unsupervised, and at Shrine Circus in Minnesota a single strand of electric tape separated three, often unsupervised, elephants from a school playing field.

2.6 Control of animals and potential for conflict

During an average performing week animals need to be moved from their living quarters to the circus ring to perform, typically twice a day. This entails moving large and potentially dangerous animals across open ground, from their living quarters to the ring.

This transfer from cage to circus ring gives rise to two factors that can result in suffering to the animals. Firstly, the workers are under pressure to get the animals into the ring on time, and second, the need to keep the animals moving to prevent them identifying opportunities for escape. As a result, the workers (who are often untrained general hands and not necessarily animal presenters or trainers) can abuse the animals due to anxiety, stress and a lack of understanding of the species that they are handling 9.

Generally, groups of elephants are led (or chased) through the encampment to the big top very quickly, so as minimize the risk of their being out in the open for too long. Although some animals such as single elephants who are used to the routine can appear calm, without close discipline any minor event or sight of something unusual can cause a panic or stampede 9.

Nondomesticated species traveling with circuses such as lions, tigers, bears and elephants have not been bred over generations for compliance, and their wild nature can make them unpredictable. As a result, animal movement around the circus is commonly accompanied by shouting, banging bars, threatening, hitting and whipping by the handlers 9.


To summarize:

  • The nature of a traveling circus, with the restrictions on cage sizes and other limitations, creates an environment where the basic welfare needs of the animals cannot be adequately met.
  • Animals may have to share their trucks with circus equipment, restricting space even further.
  • Exercise enclosures, if erected, are frequently not made available to some or all of the animals due to time restrictions, or not enough space, or competitive or aggressive animals.
  • Animals are frequently transported to different parts of the country, meaning long journeys.
  • Animals are left in their trailers for many hours longer than their journey, as they wait for facilities to be erected.
  • Animals are vulnerable to abuse by inadequately trained staff, who may be working under time pressure.

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

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