Are Circuses Really All That Bad?

November 6, 20120 Comments

Attending the circus and watching the spectacle under the big top is, for many of us, a favorite childhood memory. The smell of popcorn and cotton candy, the music, the daring trapeze artists and, most especially the animal acts! The circus is full of joy and good times, right?

For the hundreds of animals forced to live completely unnatural lives traveling from town to town and performing for the entertainment of humans, the circus life is anything but joyful. For the intelligent and sensitive elephants who often spend as long as 20 or 30 years performing, the circus is anything but a happy place.

Do elephants enjoy performing?

High energy music, loud ring masters, glitz and glitter all come together to make it seem like elephants enjoy performing, but underneath it all is a sad, lonely, and exhausted animal who is doing what it is told to do for what simple reason: because he or she is too afraid not to. From a very young age, these poor creatures are taught to fear the consequences of not obeying their trainers and so they perform unnatural and inhumane tricks day in and day out just to avoid the punishment they believe will come from not.

But circus elephants only have to work a few minutes a day and then spend all of their time eating and resting, right?

Wrong. After their few moments in the spotlight, elephants are either chained by their feet in some dark corner or stuffed into a tractor trailer to move to the next town. Every minute of their lives is controlled and they never get the chance to just “be elephants.”

Why would a trainer treat their elephants badly?

The way that elephants are trained hasn’t changed much over the past few hundred years. The use of pain and fear (see video) is still an acceptable method of getting the desired behavior from elephants and most trainers were taught these methods from the trainers who came before them. New trainers are taught that the only way to get the elephant to do what you want is to make them.

But the circus says they use only positive reinforcement, are they lying?

A circus is a business, and like any business the main goal is to make money. If people knew the brutal truth about what goes on behind the scenes, no one in their right mind would buy a ticket to see the show! While trainers might make a big deal out of offering their elephant a treat for a job well done, it is very likely that they used all sorts of cruel treatment to train the trick in the first place. Training methods often include beating with stick or clubs, withholding food, and using the sharp end of an “elephant hook” all of which are designed to put the trainer in a position of authority.

What happens when the elephant is ready to retire?

Wouldn’t it be nice to think that after decades of service, the elephants might get to retire to a nice farm somewhere where they finally had the chance to walk on grass, lay down unchained, and spend time with other elephants? Unless a rescue organization steps in, this is far from the reality of a performing elephants retirement. What is more likely, is that they will end up passed down to a smaller, poorer circus who will take even less care of them or spend their lives in a zoo habitat that is no more natural than the circus was. In the wild, elephants can live as long as 60 or 70 years;  but the stress, abuse and neglect that a circus elephant endures mean they often only live about half that long.

Circuses without performing animals can still be enjoyable to watch. Even without the dancing elephant or the bike riding chimp, there will still be the popcorn, the cotton candy, and the excitement that goes on under the big top. The only difference is, there won’t be any suffering.


Filed in: AllCircusCurriculumIssue Education

About the Author ()

As a former amusement park elephant trainer turned animal activist, Tracee has a unique perspective into the world of animals in the entertainment industry. She now lives on a farm in Northern California, where, when not writing, she spends her time caring for the many animals she has rescued.

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