Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

Animals in Traveling Circuses: The Science on Suffering: 2. The Traveling Environment

Posted: 31 October 2008

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.

Generally, a circus will spend between a few days and two weeks at a particular location, sometimes longer. 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 9It 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.

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. ADI has observed circus animals shut in transporters for periods of almost 40 hours without being unloaded even on relatively short journeys and in some countries geographical considerations mean that some journeys between destinations are very long in themselves. This extended confinement represents poor animal welfare, causing suffering. When animals are moving to and from the circus to fulfil additional commitments – for example promotional activity– it can significantly increase time spent in transporters.

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.

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.

2.7 ADI observations inside animal circuses

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ADI studies the use of animals in traveling circuses all over the world. Methods used include observations, videotape and photography by our field officers, who work undercover in circuses. We relate our findings to the published scientific evidence on animal welfare and behavior, to inform government or administrative decision-making

Together, these studies have revealed consistencies in working practices throughout the industry. Indeed the differences in working practices, animal care and training methods between the circus industries of Europe, South and North America differ in little more than presentational ways. This is not surprising, given that animal living quarters need to be completely portable so any scope for development is very limited. The tricks being taught to the animals are broadly the same; presenters and animals move throughout the industry, and the timing of shows follows the normal pattern of the working week and weekends.

2.7.1 Physical and Social Deprivation

  • Severe confinement and restriction of natural behaviors among all species observed including elephants, tigers, monkeys, apes and ponies.
  • Lack of free exercise among the species observed.
  • Isolation of herding species.
  • Chaining of elephants for most of the day, and for entire days when they were not performing, restricting their movements to a few steps backwards or forwards.
  • Lions and tigers living in cages on the backs of trucks, with space per animal little larger than the animals themselves.
  • Lack of free access to water, especially for elephants.
  • Excessive periods in trucks, before, during and after the journey.

2.7.2 Physical Abuse

  • Elephant hooks (ankuses) used universally to control elephants. Elephants often subject to very violent physical abuse including being kicked punched and repeatedy beaten in the face with metal and wooden objects. On more than one occasion, ASDI Field Officers have filmed elephants being beaten to the ground by their trainers – proof that even very powerful animals can be beaten into submission.
  • Lions and tigers being poked and beaten with poles, bars and other objects kicked and terrorised.
  • Horses, ponies, donkeys, llamas and camels being repeatedly whipped, having pain inflicted by twisting the nose or lip (camels), hit and kicked.
  • Dogs being beaten with a metal bar as part of a training session.
  • Chimpanzees being punched, kicked and thrashed with a weapon, including one female being beaten with chain.

2.7.3 Animal Health and Welfare

  • Disturbed stereotypic behavior, such as head bobbing and swaying, or other repetitive movements have been observed in almost all species used in the circus including chimpanzees, elephants, lions, tigers, camels, ponies, and llamas.
  • Animals continuing to perform, give rides, or be on display with open wounds or other injuries
  • Members of the public gaining access to animals to feed them inappropriate food or other items.

2.7.4 Public Safety

ADI has regularly observed inadequate caging or other facilities bringing animals into dangerously close contact to people, including:

  • Children approaching dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, and apes, and even making contact.
  • Various near escapes or escape attempts including lions, tigers, elephants, zebra, and camels.
  • Facilities that could not contain animals in the event of serious attempt to escape, including for lions, tigers, buffalo and elephants.

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