The Truth About Zoos and Circuses

October 25, 20121 Comment

Elephants are often seen as emblems of the exotic. Their distinctive appearance and towering size set them apart from other animals and to Westerners especially, they are intriguing. Often, we think the first step to admiring these regal mammals is to take a trip to the zoo or the circus. We would like to think that animals in zoos are comfortable, happy, and in their own elements. We may have romantic notions that circus animals are content to perform and enjoy pleasing the audience just like a human actor or actress. But, once we look behind the scenes, the truth is something very different and very sad. It’s something that must change if we want to live in a society that respects the lives of animals.

Animals Suffer Terribly for our “Education” and Entertainment 
Some people say that zoos serve a purpose because they are educational. However, watching elephants inhabiting small, man-made spaces doesn’t teach us anything about elephants in their natural environments. Zoos don’t teach us how to respect or appreciate elephants, nor does it help them in the wild.

Topeka Kansas Zoo on Top 10 Worst Zoos List (2011). Photo courtesy of IDA.

The truth is, animals in zoos and in circuses suffer from conditions that can quickly drive them insane. Even though their quarters may look suitable from a human’s perspective, enclosures are often too small. In particular, elephants in zoos can easily become diseased, obese, and extremely stressed out. Their stress over their limited mobility can result in constant swaying of their heads, called “stereotypic behavior.”

In Defense of Animals (IDA) has published the Top Ten Worst Zoos list on their website, which  “exposes the hidden suffering of elephants in zoos, where lack of space, unsuitably cold climates and unnatural conditions condemn Earth’s largest land mammals to lifetimes of deprivation, disease and early death.”  The zoos on the list are deemed by IDA to not offer adequate space or appropriate environments for elephants.


Baby elephant being trained by Ringling Brothers. Photo credit: Samual Haddock. Provided courtesy of PETA.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatement of Animals) points out in their circus section that elephants in circuses do not perform because they want to. They perform because they are forced to. During training, they are beaten with bullhooks and shocked to perform tricks.  In circuses, elephants are subjected to shockingly poor conditions, including cramped quarters, abuse, and isolation from other elephants. Elephants are extremely social animals just like us humans and being prevented from interacting normally with other elephants is very painful and depressing to them.


What are Alternatives to Circuses and Zoos? 

Wildlife Sanctuaries
Instead of going to a zoo or animal circus, how about visting a wildlife sanctuary? There are two elephant sanctuaries in the United States: The Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) near Sacramento, California and The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Only PAWS allows visitors, so you’ll need to plan a trip to come visit!

PAWS Sanctuary. Photo Credit: PAWS.

Injured, sick and abused elephants may come to these sanctuaries to find peace and live in a near-normal situation. The sanctuaries provide the elephants with a safe place to live in wide, open spaces where they can roam, eat, and interact with one another. They are cared for by top veterinarians and are helped by caring volunteers.

PAWS is home to several African and Asian elephants. On this sanctuary, elephants can roam on hundreds of acres and are provided with superb care. PAWS has been active since 1984. Their mission is to provide animals that have suffered through exotic and performing animal trades with a place for peace.

PAWS allows visitors on a limited basis. PAWS hosts a weekend getaway called “Seeing the Elephant” where you and your family can book a one or two day excursion and learn about these majestic animals in their peaceful habitats.  PAWS will also be hosting a Holiday Open House on December 8th that is $50 per adult and $25 for kids 12 and under.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is also an excellent sanctuary but it prefers to not allows visitors.

People Circuses

PETA suggests that if you like circuses, there are several animal-free circuses you can enjoy. Cirque du Soleil, the New Pickle Family Circus, and Cirque Éloize are all free of animal acts.

What Can You Do To Help?

There are plenty of other things you can do to help. Has your school scheduled a field trip to the zoo or to a circus? Talk to your teacher to see if you can organize a screening of Juliette’s movie or a trip to an animal shelter instead. There are plenty of alternatives to zoos and circuses!



From PETA’s website: Elephants in Circuses: Training & Tragedy. “This undercover video footage shows Carson & Barnes Circus’ “animal care” director instructing a would-be elephant trainer how to use a sharp, steel-tipped bullhook.”


Filed in: AllCircusCurriculumIssue EducationZoos
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About the Author ()

Margaret Castleberry, better known by her middle name Clare, is a freelance writer with a background as a librarian. She has traveled all over Eastern Europe and is visiting elephants in Southeast Asia this December.

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  1. Margaret weed says:

    What a beautiful article!

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