The contemporary circus can be traced back to the Roman Circus Maximus, an enormous U-shaped arena built between two of Rome’s seven hills in a long narrow valley. Chariot races, equestrian sports, and wild-animal exhibits drew both nobles and commoners to the arena. Although the events at the Circus Maximus began as relatively harmless public entertainment, they became progressively violent. Because enslaved people and animals were considered “nonpersons” under Roman law, people paid little attention to those harmed or killed during these incidents.

The contemporary circus began with horse and acrobatic acts in the early nineteenth century. A circus claimed to have domesticated wild animals for the first time in 1820. In 1851, George Bailey expanded his show to include a menagerie, including elephants. The young circus rounded out a live orchestra, flying trapeze performers, and clowns. A human “freak” exhibition was added in 1871.

On the other hand, animal circuses have remained intact despite the near-extinction of human freak performances. Circus animals continue to be denied their basic requirements for exercise, roaming, socialization, foraging, and play. Swaying, pacing, bar-biting, and self-mutilation are just a few of the traditional behaviors they exhibit due to their mental torment. These creatures have been known to lash out against trainers, carers, and public members, harming or killing them. 

They are forced to do perplexing and physically demanding acts such as standing on their heads, riding bicycles, and jumping through rings of fire for up to 50 weeks a year in suffocating, claustrophobic, and filthy trailers and railway cars. These creatures would travel large distances and have active social lives in the wild.

Elephants, tigers, and other circus animals don’t stand on their heads, jump between hoops, or balance on pedestals only to entertain audiences. They do this and many other complicated tricks out of fear of what might happen if they don’t.

Circus trainers employ whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks (heavy batons with a jagged steel hook on one end), and other painful circus weapons to force animals to perform. Elephants are flogged with bullhooks and shocked with electric prods in video footage from animal training sessions. Because the government does not monitor circus training sessions and handlers are cautious in public, circuses may get away with such everyday abuse.

A brown bear in a circus
A brown bear in a circus | Image Credit – Davita

Circuses are an undesirable and inhumane practice that harms both animals and the general people. Exotic animals are forced to participate in the act, unlike human entertainers who engage in circuses. They are unwitting participants in a nasty and unnatural show. The circus is often associated with “safe, wholesome, family fun,” but the truth is far more sinister. 

Government inspection reports demonstrate a pattern of animal cruelty in circuses, as well as a failure to meet the law’s basic minimum requirements of care. Circus animals have been wounded and killed, and humans have been injured and killed. Hundreds of wild animals are presently kept in circuses around the United States. There are thousands of them all across the world.

The circus, ironically, is unconcerned with its main attractions i.e. The animals. These animals frequently display indicators of unbearable suffering, ranging from simple physical mistreatment to mental health difficulties. The show may appear as an awe-inspiring display featuring some of the most exotic and wild animals.

Attending the circus lets you see some of these animals in person, but the wild animals are instructed to perform some of the most bizarre tricks. Unfortunately, circus animals are not pampered like celebrities. Many circus performers are subjected to the most dreadful conditions and heinous torture to master intricate acrobatics and stunts for performances.

The magnificent performances are nothing more than a brutal show of unrestrained animal torture set to appealing music and nice lighting effects.

Table of Contents

Life on the Road & Transportation

A circus elephant
A circus elephant | Image Credit – Andrea lzzotti

Circus animals travel for around 11 months of the year. They are chained while not performing, transported in cars with no climate control, and forced to stand or lie in their waste for thousands of hours over enormous distances.

Touring circuses travel thousands of miles a year, transporting animals in transporters and cages on the backs of lorries known as beast wagons. They live most of the year in temporary housing because they move every week.

The animals may be confined in their transportation cages for hours, if not days, with their only respite being restricted time in an exercise cage, being trained, or performing. A traveling menagerie can’t offer the necessary amenities for circus animals.

Cruel Training Technique

Night after night, circus animals are compelled to perform terrifying, bizarre, and often horrific tricks. Although circus representatives frequently claim that only “positive reinforcement” is used in handling animals – and this could be the style of interaction that audiences see in the ring and on carefully-controlled public tours – it is standard circus industry practice to use bullhooks, a steel rod that looks like a sharpened fireplace poker and is used to prod, hooks, and strike elephants to command and control them through fear, pain, and injury. The sharp tip and hook are driven into sensitive locations on an elephant’s body with varying amounts of pressure, while the handle is used as a club to strike areas where little tissue separates skin and muscle.

Animal trainers utilize bullhooks, whips, electric prods, and unpleasant collars to compel the poor creatures to do tasks. Even though these creatures are subjected to unpleasant training methods, elephants appear to be the worst. Bullhooks, sharp implements that resemble fireplace pokers, are frequently used to beat them. The beatings can sometimes be so severe that the animal bleeds.

A tiger jumping through a burning ring
A tiger jumping through a burning ring | Image Credit – Miriam

Circus animals exist solely for entertainment, and the routines have remained essentially unchanged since the nineteenth century. Beautiful majestic animals like elephants are still abused by their trainers in circuses, and large cats are still transformed into cowardly-looking beasts by the cracking whip of the ‘strong’ lion tamer.

Some circuses claim to be instructive, but watching such majestic animals limited to doing tricks has no educational benefit. The thought of publicly shaming an animal to demonstrate that ‘Man’ is capable of such power is not appealing. We should teach children to respect animals, not the other way around as circuses do.

Isolation from others and confined spaces

Elephants live in big, friendly herds in the wild, walking up to 30 kilometers each day. Most other wild creatures found in circuses, such as lions and tigers, are continuously on the go in their natural habitats. It is intrinsically cruel to deny these animals the opportunity to wander, usually communicate with other group members, and engage in other innate behaviors.

A tiger isolated in a cage
A tiger isolated in a cage | Image Credit – Flickr

Circus’s living conditions routinely fail to meet the animals’ most basic demands of the animals. When the show ends, the animals are usually returned to isolation in small, barren cages where they have no opportunity to engage in normal behaviors or communicate with their species.

In a study of animal circuses in Vietnam, 100% of the facilities failed to provide for the animals’ fundamental needs. Bears rocking in tiny cages is a standard indicator of stress and mental illness – and the same for macaques shackled by their necks.

Aggression and stress of unnatural confinement

An elephant attack
An elephant attack | Image Credit – BBC

Circus animals are compelled to live lifestyles far from what nature intended. Wild animals are stressed out by the clash between their inclinations and the harsh realities of captivity and training methods that include violence, fear, and intimidation. It’s no surprise that certain animals are driven insane and go on rampages that damage and kill people.

Disease Carriers and Lacking Veterinary services

The elephants in the circus may be afflicted with tuberculosis (TB), and because the circus brings these animals into close quarters with humans, humans may become infected. According to reports, many circuses have a history of tuberculosis in their elephants, and many have utilized TB-positive elephants in public performances.

Selling the full tickets possible, cutting corners, and ensuring that the show goes on regardless of the circumstances are all part of the circus business. Nonetheless, were you aware that abused circus animals receive substandard or no veterinary care?

The main reason behind this is that high-quality veterinary treatment is expensive and does not benefit the circus’ finances. Furthermore, many circuses lease their animals from various sellers on a seasonal basis.

Fleeing animals for freedom

Animals’ natural impulses are stifled and subjected to significant stress in circuses. There have been countless cases of circus animals escaping their enclosures and freely roaming outside the premises where they are performing, searching for freedom and space. These are wild creatures that circuses bring into unnaturally close contact with human settlements, where they may represent a threat to people.

Hundreds of animal attacks and escapes from animal circuses have occurred, frequently resulting in property damage, injuries, and death for both people and animals. Many circuses notably prohibit video cameras from being used in the arena. Circuses frequently settle injury lawsuits quickly to minimize negative publicity.

Neither Education Nor Conservation

Circuses are meant to entertain rather than educate. Students do not know respect or affection for animals by watching wild animals do odd acts. On the other hand, circuses teach youngsters that it is normal to abuse and mistreat animals just for entertainment.

Endangered animals born in circus “conservation” programs have never been released into the wild, and the majority of them are destined to be “replacement” performers. Captive breeding initiatives do nothing to address the actual risks the endangered animals face in the wild, including poaching, trophy hunting, habitat loss, and prey loss, and captive-bred animals were never designed to let go into the wild in the first place.

Wild animals belong in the wild, not in circuses, zoos, aquaria, backyards, or private residences. Wild animals in captivity cannot fulfill their biological activities, and many get enraged due to psychological and physical deprivation.

Obesity and a Lack of Exercise

An obese lion in a circus
An obese lion in a circus | Image Credit – Metro

Tigers, monkeys, elephants, and ponies are prohibited from some natural behaviors because they are confined to small places for long periods. Obesity is one of the widespread health problems that circus animals face.

Unfortunately, the lack of exercise is not limited to when the circus is on the move but is prevalent throughout the year. Even when animals are not performing, rusted chains usually restrain them.

In fact, according to some disturbing data, calves undergoing the so-called “breaking process” are typically chained for roughly 23 hours each day.

Considering that wild animals walk an average of 30 miles a day, this is tragic. Therefore, obesity is not only common in humans. Animals in circuses are also subjected to it. Foot infections and arthritis, the top causes of death among confined elephants, are exacerbated by a lack of activity and lengthy hours standing on harsh surfaces.

While the spectacle of a lion jumping through flames, an elephant standing on its hind legs, or a monkey riding a bicycle may appear entertaining to some, these creatures must endure a lifetime of abuse, confinement, and stress.

Training circus animals is frequently distorted to make it appear as if they act because they enjoy it, whereas, in reality, it is because they have been groomed to obey the trainer’s directions or risk abuse. 

Violation of Animal Welfare Act

Circuses and trainers may claim to follow best practices and have the animals’ best interests at heart. Still, the facts speak for themselves: every major animal-using circus in the United States has violated the United States Animal Welfare Act. 

1. Animals are imprisoned for 96 percent of their lives.

The average circus travels for 48 weeks a year, and the animals are all confined to tiny cages which are barely big enough to stand and turn around throughout that period. One Green Planet claims that the creatures are kept in cages for an average of more than 26 hours, with some cases lasting up to 75 or 100 hours. An elephant can wander up to 30 miles each day in the wild, demonstrating the vast difference between their brutal circus lifestyle and their natural one.

2. Shortly after birth, babies are taken from their mothers.

Elephants, lions, tigers, and chimps are all naturally gregarious animals. Still, in the circus, these animals are separated from their moms at an early age and raised in a solitary setting where they cannot express many of their natural characteristics. When these creatures are separated from their friends, they are more likely to suffer stress-related disorders, despair, anxiety, and intense frustration.

3. The most common way of training is physical punishment.

Circus animal training is a dark and unpleasant realm kept hidden from the public eye. Many investigators, however, have been able to capture secret footage of trainers torturing their animals to learn the acts they do on stage. Bullhooks, whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, and other brutal equipment are used to physically punish the animals until they learn to do things properly. Investigators have witnessed bleeding, bruising, and even shattered bones.

4. Dehydration and partial hunger are common occurrences.

Animals are frequently forced to go without food and drink for extended periods when they haven’t behaved well during training sessions or during travel times and employ direct physical touch to teach them things. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), depriving these animals of these fundamental needs and long-term physical mistreatment and abuse is done to make them fearful and subservient.

5. Animals can be disabled for a long time.

Because of the lack of biological activity and the excessive daily confinement, these poor animals typically have shorter lifespans, mental illnesses, and physical deformities resulting from their captivity. Elephants, lions, and tigers are more prone to joint problems since they roam for kilometers in the wild, something circus animals seldom get to do.

The use of animals in circuses is becoming less accepted worldwide, with many countries opting for outright bans or stringent controls. Although the United States Animal Welfare Act protects circus animals, just 100 Department of Agriculture inspectors supervise 12,000 circus-related institutions, leaving many animals vulnerable to widespread abuse.

Circus Incidents Record

A circus animal spends about 96 percent of its life in chains or cages. In the United States, there have been over 123 documented assaults on humans by giant caged cats since 1990, with 13 of them resulting in fatal injuries.

Circus elephants accidents
Circus elephants accidents | Image Credit – Upali
  • Bobby Roberts Super Circus had a horse fall in the ring in 2009. Two horses crashed while racing around the small ring, according to witnesses. Instead of being relieved to check if he was okay, the horse proceeded to perform.
  • After her dog mauled a child in 2007, the co-owner of Circus Sydney was charged. According to the court, the dog, a three-foot-tall hybrid between a Rottweiler and a German Shepherd classified by a dog warden as hostile, chased a group of children. According to a witness, the dog leaped on one of the children, a seven-year-old boy, and he “was generally mauled.” On the boy’s elbow, there was a tooth mark.
  • A macaque monkey bit a five-year-old girl during a circus in County Kerry in 2005. Following media attention, the same monkey had attacked three other crowd members on separate occasions earlier in the year.
  • In Tramore, Ireland, in 2005, a circus worker was gored and crushed by a 26-year-old elephant.

A 7,000-pound African elephant gored an elephant trainer at Six Flags Marine World. The trainer was right next to the animal when it abruptly threw him to the ground and gored him in the abdomen, critically injuring him. Another trainer was able to chase the elephant away from the attack and end it. 


Because of continuous violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including mishandling that caused physical harm, discomfort, and death, a USDA administrative judge in Washington DC ordered the Hawthorn Corp., one of the country’s largest suppliers of performing elephants and tigers, to relinquish ownership of all of its elephants.

Deaths leave a legacy

Animals rarely survive the journey from the circus to a refuge. Kenya, a 19-year-old female elephant from Circus Sydney in Northern Ireland, died in 2007 under unknown circumstances. She was born in the bush in Zimbabwe and was shackled and carried from town to town.

Ming, the last bear in a British circus (Peter Jolly’s Circus), died in 2007. Ming is said to have ridden a motorcycle in her early days as a circus ‘performance.’ Her performance consisted of little more than being led about the circus ring by a lead attached to a neck collar in recent years. The circus has remained silent about her death.

Beverley and Janie, two elephants of Bobby Roberts Circus, perished in the winter of 2000/2001. The circus did not comment, and there was no official investigation into the fatalities. The circus was left with only one elephant, Anne. Despite her arthritis, she has traveled with the circus for more than 50 years.

Wild animal circuses outlawed in several states and localities

Because animal abuse in circuses is so common, local governments in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Pasadena, Santa Ana, Huntington Beach, Marin County, and New York City, as well as the states of California, Hawaii, and New Jersey, and dozens of countries around the world, have already restricted the use of wild animals in traveling acts.

World Animal Protection was one of many organizations supporting and working on California’s legislation to prohibit the usage of wild animals statewide in 2019.

Still, some circuses use animals

There are still circuses operating in the United States today. When Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus disbanded in 2017, other circuses followed suit as states and big cities outlawed the use of bullhooks, whips, and wild animals for entertainment. Today, however, there are still circuses that travel around the country with animals. Loomis Bros Circus, Jordan World, Carden International, Royal Hanneford, and Carson & Barnes are among these circuses.

Circuses without animals are equally as entertaining!

A circus
A circus | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons

Animal-free circuses travel across the United States in the same way that circuses with wild animals do. World Animal Protection encourages people to attend animal-free circuses and investigate any circus before attending. Circus Smirkus, Circus Vargas, and the newly animal-free Kelly Miller Circus travel around the country without using animals.

(Last Updated on May 5, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Suraksha Pal is an Industrial Engineer currently pursuing my master’s degree in Renewable Energy Engineering at the Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk Campus. She has a keen interest in Renewable Energy and is passionate about sustainable development. She loves to express her views on these subjects through articles and blogs.