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Is is time to re-think a circus tradition?

Activists fight to end animal performances

Created date

September 22nd, 2014
circus tigers
circus tigers

No matter how many times you’ve been to the circus, it seems there’s always something new to marvel at. Acrobats, clowns, and tightrope walkers have delighted circus goers for centuries, but one of the oldest traditions of the circus may soon go the way of the big-top tent. The role of performing animals in the circus is being questioned and, in some places, banned. 

Animal rights activists fervently believe that animals have no role in today’s circuses. Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the American Humane Society cite video and photographic evidence that circus animals are mistreated and poorly cared for. It’s no surprise that circuses maintain they take loving care of their animals. There are laws that prohibit physical abuse and mistreatment of animals and experienced veterinarians routinely inspect circus animals for any signs of neglect or inappropriate care. 

Big-top battles

Like most modern day debates, this one is playing out in the courts and legislatures around the globe. Greece was the first nation to outright ban animal acts from circuses and 27 other countries have banned or severely restricted animal performances. In the U.S., over forty municipalities in twenty-one states have followed suit. 

Most recently, the city of Los Angeles, Calif., effectively banned circus performances with elephants by prohibiting the use of bullhooks and other tools that are “designed to inflict pain.” Bullhooks are long metal prods used to train and direct the elephants. According to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the largest traveling circus in the country, bullhooks are USDA-approved and are not employed to hurt the animals but, rather, to keep them in line. 

The Los Angeles law doesn’t go into effect until 2017, which gives circus trainers an opportunity to train the elephants with tools other than bullhooks, but whether trainers will do so remains unclear. 

A federal case

While there are many local regulations governing the use of animals in performances, outgoing Representative Jim Moran from Virginia has introduced national legislation concerning circus animals called the Traveling Exotic Animal Act. “From video and photographic evidence, it’s clear that traveling circuses aren’t providing the proper living conditions for exotic animals. This legislation is intended to target the most egregious situations involving exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses,” say Moran. “The mounting evidence of inhumane treatment and the growing public concern for these animals demands that we reconsider what are appropriate living conditions for these intelligent, social creatures.”

Animal Defenders International President Jan Creamer, who supports Rep. Moran’s proposal, says, “Magnificent wild animals have no place in a traveling circus, and with this bill, the U.S. takes the lead with 27 countries across the world that have taken action to end the suffering. Due to the very nature of the traveling circus, wild animals cannot move around or exercise naturally; they live their whole lives chained or tied up or in small cages that fit on the back of a truck. This lack of freedom leads to health, behavioral, and psychological problems.” 

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus calls Moran’s bill, “completely unnecessary and unjustified by facts or science. Ringling Bros. and other traveling exhibitors operate in a highly regulated environment with multiple layers of federal, state, and local laws and regulations already in place that govern the welfare of animals.” 

Grand victories and brutal defeats

Both animal rights activists and circuses have grand victories and brutal defeats in this ongoing war. Most recently, a court decided in favor of Ringling Bros., awarding the company the colossal amount of $25 million to be paid by animal rights groups. The case has less to do with the actual treatment of animals and more to do with how far each side is willing to go to win the battle. In this case, animal rights activists were found to have paid a former circus employee to make a false statement under oath and the decision was predicated on an anti-racketeering charge. 

On the circus side, there have been many cases of legitimate animal abuse, especially with small, traveling companies. Ringling Bros. has never been found guilty of animal abuse; however, they did settle a rather large and notable case by paying the USDA $270,000 to settle charges about the care of its animals without any admission of guilt.

Regarding that case, a Ringling Bros. spokesman says, “Despite our mutually agreed upon settlement of regulatory disputes with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ringling Bros. has never been found in violation of the Federal Animal Welfare Act.”

Animal rights groups continue to rally against the use of animal performers, while circuses point out that exposing the public to wild animals such as elephants and tigers helps to raise awareness of the importance of protecting them.