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Should animals be used in zoos, rodeos, circuses, and other forms of entertainment? Read more about their time in captivity, and then answer the question.
Words by Hemi Kim
If you click through photos and videos of animals doing funny, poignant, or strange things on social media, you are enjoying animals on display for your entertainment, and the videos may cause you to wonder what is left out of the frame. Who is behind the camera? What were the animals’ conditions before and after the recording? Asking these types of questions is practicing media literacy—questioning the messages in the websites we read and the shows we watch.
One tool for questioning the depiction of animals is keeping in mind that people involved in animal protection encourage us to be cautious when supporting the use of nonhuman animals in videos, rodeos, circuses, zoos, and other forms of entertainment. Using animals for entertainment is a classic example of behavior resulting from the hierarchy that humans developed as they learned to dominate other animals. This hierarchy is the same one that results in vast numbers of animals being killed through animal agriculture, medical experimentation, and breeding operations. This hierarchy has historically also been combined with and worked alongside those used to otherize humans based on their race, gender, sexuality, disability status, and wealth. Yet there are alternatives to roadside zoos, animal parks, petting zoos, and shoving a four-hooved herbivore into yet another Christmas display, thanks to innovation in technology and the performing arts.
Using animals for entertainment means that the animals are being taken advantage of, suffering, and even dying, for the amusement and pleasure of onlookers. The animals involved do not have a choice in their vocation as entertainers, and frequently bear emotional and physical wounds or are killed on the job. Examples of when people use animals for entertainment include zoos and aquariums, marine mammal parks, rodeos and bull riding, bullfighting, and the use of trained animals in circuses, films and shows.
In Matthieu Ricard’s book “A Plea for the Animals” he describes the use of animals for human entertainment as far back as the Mesopotamian empires, by the Kings of Babylon and Assyria. Wild animals were confined in enclosures and hunted by humans in chariots, with the help of packs of dogs.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers to the question of whether animals should be used in zoos, rodeos, circuses, and other forms of entertainment. From the perspective of people speaking up for the protection of animals, the answer is usually “no.” Philosopher Peter Singer, in his landmark animal rights book “Animal Liberation,” urges readers to make major changes in how they treat animals in “areas of entertainment like circuses, rodeos, and zoos.”
Singer chose to focus on examples of killing animals for meat and medical experimentation to make a case against speciesism—the idea that one animal species is more important than any other. But he writes that animals suffer just as much when humans are “tormenting them to make them learn tricks for circuses and tormenting them to make them entertain the audiences at rodeos.”
People pay to watch shows and events featuring all types of animals. Iconic animals used in circuses can be found on boxes of animal crackers: a zebra, elephant, lion, giraffe, and gorilla. Meanwhile, famous marine mammal parks have historically featured trained dolphins and orcas in their advertising. Zoo animals can be almost any type of animal but tend to include large wild animals, such as pandas, hippos, koalas, primates, giraffes, big cats, birds, zebras, camels, snakes, reptiles, and more. In rodeos and bullfighting, horses and cows are the primary objects of entertainment. Meanwhile, the roster of animal actors in the film industry have included bears, dogs, monkeys, chimpanzees, dolphins, a whale, equines, cats, crows, farmed animals, and the casts of the Dr. Dolittle series.
Circuses have historically left audiences awestruck by making elephants march in a line using one’s trunk to hold another’s tail, or having a lion tamer stick his head in a big cat’s mouth. Yet as Ricard explains, the elegance of the elephants’ performances are an illusion enabled by a sharp iron hook disguised as a wand with flowers, “that will quickly come jabbing into the pachyderm’s ear at the least sign of disobedience.” Former circus trainers like Vladimir Deriabkine have testified that the pleasure that animals give to circus audiences around the world is the result of training practices based on animal cruelty and violence. Deriabkine once saw a trainer who killed a bear for refusing to perform his number. Iconic animals in circuses have also included tigers, bears, lemurs, chimpanzees, horses, and birds such as parrots, doves, peacocks, and cockatoos.
Writer and animal advocate Krista Kihlander explains that attractions like SeaWorld seem like perfect places “to bring children for them to learn about animals.” SeaWorld fostered Kihlander’s love for orcas: “I was in awe of their majesty, and utterly infatuated with their sheer size.” Yet in these parks, dolphins and orcas are deprived of their natural habitat, freedom, and social relations, and they ultimately experience high rates of mortality. In their natural environments, they love to swim 60 to 90 miles per day.
The appeal of zoos is similar to why people enjoy SeaWorld. Curious families can learn about animals by seeing them alive but caged, so as not to pose any threat. In the past, zoos have even held human exhibits—of melanated, colonized people kept behind bars for public viewing by lighter-skinned humans. That zoos held humans behind bars is an explicit historical example of the racialized hierarchy of humans over nonhumans. Zoos are also historically responsible for supporting illicit animal trade that has resulted in “10 deaths for every animal that is finally exhibited,” due to the harms to animals from transport and the difficulty of adapting to their new environment, Ricard writes.
A rodeo is a festive arena where people watch each other ride bucking horses and cows (technically speaking, bulls). The horses and cows are rebelling against their treatment. They are normally calm and docile, and when there is space to do so they are more likely to flee situations that bother them than fight back. In rodeo activities such as bull riding, the frightened animal flails their spine and torso vertically and sideways, jumping and kicking, trying to remove sources of pain and irritation imposed on them by the show organizers.
According to the ALDF website, rodeos use electric prods, metal spurs, and bucking straps to cause intense pain, the bucking straps burning the cow’s “abdomen and groin area.” The bucking and extreme bodily gesticulation “can lead to back and leg injuries.”
The corrida is a festival focused on the exhilarating “twists and turns” of a rigged fight between a torero (usually a man) and a bull, in which the bull is wounded and ultimately dies, explains Matthieu Ricard in his book “A Plea for the Animals.” An estimated 180,000 to 250,000 bulls die in bullfights worldwide, according to CAS International and The Humane Society International, respectively, but more are likely to have been killed outside of the arena.
The honor of killing the bull is usually cloaked in values like courage in meeting an adversary head-on. However, cows are herbivores who are hard to provoke, and who would more likely run away from a predator in nature than try to defend themselves as they do when repeatedly attacked in the confines of an arena.
In the end title credits of a movie, you may have seen a statement that read “no animals were harmed in the making of this film.” The reason this certification is needed is that animal abuse was rampant in the early 20th century during the start of the film industry. Early television shows and films have historically used animal actors such as dogs, cats, sheep, pigs, horses, bears, elephants, donkeys, monkeys, birds, and even a lion. Modern films and shows continue to use animals, whose welfare continues to be compromised in the hands of animal suppliers. PETA reports that animals who are deemed useless as actors are discarded at “seedy roadside zoos and substandard facilities” that fail to provide proper food and medical care to the retired animals.
Animals are sensitive species with natural habitats that are hard to replicate and that are necessary to make them happy. Trying to get them to do things for the benefit of human entertainment turns them into unwilling workers in ways that typically rely on cruelty and abuse.
The definition of animal cruelty is as simple as causing harm to an animal. It can be purposeful or the result of neglect. One of the cruelest forms of entertainment at a rodeo is calf roping. In this activity, three-month-old cows “are chased at high speed, roped around the neck, dragged to a sudden stop with the rope choking their neck, then thrown to the ground; a horrific experience causing stress, fear, pain and sometimes injury,” according to SAFE’s website.
Animal abuse, like animal cruelty, is when an animal is harmed, whether the act is intentional or simply the result of failing to do something. The abuse of animals in the entertainment industry is an ongoing source of suffering, according to animal rights activists. An animal supplier for shows on the USA Network, Disney+, AMC, and Netflix, was keeping “more than a dozen dogs kept in kennels stacked on top of one another in a garage, animals crammed into closets, and an alligator […] held in a small, filthy outdoor pit,” reported Katherine Sullivan for PETA in 2020.
Consistent across all use of animals in entertainment is the inability of animals to display their natural behavior because of how they are confined. In 1974 Phillipe Diolé wrote a series of articles condemning zoos, quoted by Ricard: “an animal loses the space where his complex life was organized: its behavior is thrown off, its state of mind is shaken. There is no other outcome for it than madness,” resulting in zoo captives who are, with few exceptions, mentally ill.
In the case of using animals for the purposes of entertainment, modern technology can provide powerful alternatives to the real thing. Choosing to go with forms of animal-friendly entertainment can open doors to new types of shows as well as opportunities for self-reflection.
Families who want to teach children to have empathy for the plight of circus animals while also celebrating them on display may enjoy holographic shows. Circus Roncalli has used laser beams to create “incredibly realistic three-dimensional illusions” of “performing elephants, horses, and fish without involving real animals,” according to Hannah McKay for Sentient Media.
Another festive way to replicate the animal experience without causing harm by exhibiting them is to use robots. McKay reported that The Seasonal Group developed “interactive, programmable, life-size animatronic reindeer,” and that Edge Innovations has created a realistic animatronic dolphin. Delle, the robotic dolphin, swims, performs tricks and interacts with people.
Human circuses display the acrobatic skills of performance artists without the use of nonhuman animals. The National Humane Education Society lists Cirque du Soleil, The New Pickle Family Circus, and Circus Oz as examples of circuses free of nonhuman animals.
Among people who speak up to protect animals from abuse and cruelty, zoos are less preferred than sanctuaries, reserves, and national parks. While there has been reform in zoos towards wildlife conservation, they still trouble us with the question Ricard poses, “Is it moral to capture an animal and imprison it?”
Maintaining compassion for humans as well as nonhuman animals is key to effective advocacy and communication. In an interview with lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Project, long-time activist Sukie recommends that, in the face of an angry person who has become ugly toward you, remember “You are not going to change that person’s mind, but if others see you being angry and ugly, they get turned off and you won’t reach them. If we claim to be compassionate to animals, we need to be compassionate to human animals. Most of them are not aware of all the cruelty involved, and the reason you are there is to sow the seeds.”
Forms of entertainment that abuse animals continue to exist, but they are also being challenged by animal rights activists, proponents of animal welfare, legislators, filmmakers, and former animal trainers. These cultural practices have proven to be highly influenced by public campaigns that are the result of organized, like-minded people who encourage each other to subvert the human-animal divide.
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