Do Circuses Still Abuse Animals?

Though public opinion polls suggest most people do not support use of animals for circus entertainment, the practice continues unabated.

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Since its inception in the 18th century, the circus industry has used animals, confining and training them to entertain humans. Yet as more research reveals the abuses of the industry, public opinion of the use of animals for entertainment has shifted. Still, even as many countries around the world ban the use of animals in circuses, others continue the practice despite the objections.

Do Circuses Still Use Animals?

Despite the welfare implications of animals being used in circuses, thousands of animals around the world are still used in circuses today. Over 40 countries have banned the use of wild animals in circuses but others have yet to make a change.

What Animals Are in the Circus?

When circuses first started, horses were the main animals involved. But as time went on, animals including lions, tigers, bears, chimpanzees, alligators, llamas, rhinos and elephants were also incorporated in performances. 

Where Do Wild Circus Animals Come From?

Circus animals today are mostly bred in captivity, but this does not mean they are domestic animals. The process of domesticating an animal such that it is able to live more comfortably around humans takes a very long time. For some species such as elephants, it may never happen. This means that their needs would be extremely difficult to meet in any captive environment, but are impossible to meet in a circus. Whether they are captured from the wild directly or bred in captivity, animals used in circuses are still wild animals. 

Where Do Wild Circus Animals Live?

Circus animals around the world can spend up to 96 percent of their lives in transit, trapped in small cages or chained up. With little space to move around, they have no way of expressing their natural behaviors such as hunting, grazing or foraging. The cages are often so small that the animals have no choice but to defecate where they sleep.

Some animals may be allowed a small exercise space while the circus is stationary, but this is dependent on where the circus happens to be staying. Animals such as lions and tigers often spend their entire lives caged other than when they’re being trained or performing acts.

This type of living environment would be far from suitable for a domestic animal but is especially harmful to the welfare of a wild animal. Instead of having expanses of territory in which to roam free, they are confined to small spaces and deprived of their most basic needs. 

Confining animals like this is both physically and psychologically harmful. In physical terms, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, stress of various kinds and inadequate care can all contribute to a range of conditions and leave animals more susceptible to disease. In psychological terms, being denied the chance to express the natural behaviors of their species or to interact with other members of their species in the way they should is a further source of stress and can lead to stereotypic behaviors.

Which Circuses Still Use Animals?

One circus that still advertises animal acts is Culpepper and Merriweather Circus. This circus travels across the midwest over 32 weeks of the year, taking with it a range of animals including two tigers and a lion. The circus claims that its animals are mainly rescued and that it uses positive reinforcement training methods, but this does not take away from the fact that they’re living in a highly stressful environment and are being trained to perform purely for human entertainment. The circus has also previously been cited by the USDA for failing to meet some of the animals’ most basic needs.

Another circus that still uses animals is Loomis Bros. Circus. This circus travels across the southern and central United States with its various animals including tigers, a camel, ponies and elephants. The circus claims that its animals receive a high quality of care, but the simple fact that they spend the majority of the year traveling brings this into question.

Why and How Do Circuses Abuse Their Animals?

The stunts and tricks that circus animals are forced to perform fall outside any behaviors they would normally carry out, and the animals have to be trained to perform them. In most cases this involves physical and psychological abuse. From these training techniques to the social isolation they endure, circus animals are abused in many ways, purely for human entertainment. 

Training Techniques

Circus trainers often claim that their animals enjoy the enrichment of being taught to perform their acts and so want to please their trainers, but undercover investigations have revealed the cruelty of the training methods used by the industry. Common training techniques include the animals being beaten, whipped or attacked with bullhooks. Electric shock devices are also often used.


The very nature of a circus involves spending the majority of time traveling from town to town. For the animals involved this means spending stressful hours in very small containers on a regular basis, subjected to a lot of noise, often with little ventilation and no form of enrichment. 

Confinement and Isolation

Many of these animals are social creatures who would naturally live as part of a large group. Being deprived of this social companionship is extremely detrimental to their welfare.

Cramped conditions not only prevent them carrying out natural behaviors of their species but can also be linked to physical health problems. As with any animal deprived of movement or exercise, circus animals commonly develop painful joint problems and become obese, which puts them at greater risk of developing other health issues.

Threats to Public Safety

The wild nature of these animals means that they are far from comfortable around humans and therefore have the potential to be a serious threat to public safety. Many of the animals used in circuses are large, powerful animals and in simply trying to get themselves out of a stressful situation they could cause serious harm.

In order to minimize this risk, the animals are treated in such a way that they become incredibly fearful of their trainers. Powerful and fierce animals such as tigers and lions are reduced to timid fearful creatures, who will do whatever they can to avoid being abused by those in charge of them. There have also been reports of animals being drugged before their performances so that they are sufficiently subdued, and having been declawed or having their teeth removed so that they are unable to defend themselves against their trainers.

The potential for circus animals to escape also poses a threat to public safety and the safety of the animals. There have been many incidents recorded of animals escaping circuses, including one in 2017 when a tiger escaped from a circus in Paris and was later shot dead by police.

Circuses Do Not Conserve or Educate

Those who support the practice of animals being used in circuses often promote it as being educational, but watching animals being forced to perform tricks and stunts that bear no relation to their natural behaviors has no educational value. Instead of being taught to respect and admire these animals for who they are, children are instead being shown humans dominating them. 

Another argument used to support the industry is that it is beneficial for wildlife conservation, but this is also an unfounded claim. Circuses do not have the resources of conservation programs, and animals are not released from circuses back into their natural environments, so the practice does not support the wild populations of the species it uses.

Lack of Regulation

In countries where circuses are still allowed to use animals in their acts, circus animals have little legal protection. The federal Animal Welfare Act of the U.S., for example, does not prevent circus animals being kept in small cages and trained using bullhooks, prods and whips. The few minimal protections that the act does provide do not apply to birds, reptiles, amphibians or horses used in circuses. 

Many countries — including Austria, Denmark, Scotland, Costa Rica, and Peru — have banned the use of wild animals in circuses. However, in most of the countries where it is now illegal to use wild animals in circuses, domestic animals such as horses continue to be forced to perform. 

Facts About Animal Circuses

  • Training wild animals for use in circuses often involves them being forcibly removed from their mothers when they are very young. Elephant calves, for example, are tied up and taken away from their mothers at just 18 to 24 months of age. 
  • According to World Animal Protection, every major circus in the U.S. that either currently uses or previously used animals has been cited for violating animal welfare standards.
  • Once no longer profitable to the circus, some circus animals are sold to “canned hunt” facilities, where people pay for the chance to kill a captive-bred wild animal at close range in an enclosure which the animal cannot escape from. 
  • In 2019, a zebra was shot dead after escaping from a circus in Germany.

Facts About Circus Animals

  • Research has shown that elephants demonstrate kindness, for example by trying to comfort other elephants who are in distress.  
  • In the wild, chimpanzees work together and will choose to disadvantage themselves in order to help other chimpanzees in their social group. 
  • The territory of just one free-living tiger can span up to 40 square miles
  • Lions, unlike other big cats, naturally live together in family groups (prides) of between two and 40 individuals
  • In 2021, a 17-year-old ex-circus bear named Martha was rescued from a small cage where she was held as a restaurant attraction and moved to a bear sanctuary run by the international animal protection organization Four Paws.  
  • In 2009, Bolivia became the first country to ban the use of all animals in circuses, though it has since been followed by many others, and an increasing number of localities in the U.S. 

What You Can Do

Much of what circus animals have to endure goes on behind closed doors and is not widely known. To help reduce demand for animal acts in circuses you can educate others about what goes on and encourage them to avoid circuses that use animals. Animal-free circuses, like Cirque du Soleil or the Wanderlust Circus, are a far better alternative; they are just as fun to attend, but don’t involve animal abuse. More resources are available on our Take Action page.

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