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Brief Summary of Animals in Circuses and the Laws Governing Them

Anastasia Niedrich

Animal Legal & Historical Center
Publish Date:
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Brief Summary of Animals in Circuses and the Laws Governing Them



A great number of, and many different types of animals, are used in circuses every day, all over the world.  Not all circuses use animals in their exhibitions, but where circuses do use animals, controversy and concerns abound.  Many threats exist to both the circus-going public and the animals in circuses including: wild animal escapes; mistreatment; the sale of circus animals to private “canned hunt” facilities; unlawful animal trafficking; and more.

The chief threat to animals in the circus is mistreatment and neglect by circus staff.  Circus animals do not naturally jump through rings of fire, balance on stools or perform the various acts that circuses require them to do.  Those animals must be trained to perform, and trainers may use negative reinforcement (mistreating or withholding necessities to force a circus animal to perform, such as beating or depriving a circus animal of food or water).  Abuse in circuses takes many forms such as physical abuse with hooks or rods to compel circus animals to perform, confinement and chaining in harsh and potentially deadly weather conditions for long periods of time, and withholding food or proper medical care.  Every year, many circus animals, including some endangered species, die from this inhumane treatment.

Humans also face threats from the use of animals in circuses.  The chief threats to circus staff and circus-goers are from escaped or provoked animals (a circus animal that is verbally or physically taunted, poked or otherwise provoked to act, usually by a circus patron)  To a far lesser extent, animal “activists” or “terrorists” also pose threats to the physical safety and economic success of circus staff and patrons when they protest circuses or intentionally damage circus property. 

Since their arrival in the United States, circuses have been governed by federal and state authorities.  Despite laws aimed to ensure the welfare of some animals in circuses and elsewhere, federal and state-level legislation often fails to protect circus animals, and sometimes even purposefully excludes them.  For example, some state anti-cruelty laws specifically exclude circuses from their provisions.  In addition, the main federal law that covers circuses, the Animal Welfare Act, is ineffective because it is difficult to adequately enforce for all animal circuses in the country.  Many international countries also have laws governing animals in circuses.  Some international laws are more comprehensive or effective than others.  United States laws are not the best or the worst at protecting circus animals when compared to other countries. 


For more on this topic, see the Overview of Circus Laws

For a detailed legal analysis, see the Detailed Discussion


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