This overview outlines the chief threats facing circus animals in the United States. It also discusses the dangers facing the circus-going public due to animal rampages and provocation. The main legal protections for circus animals are also summarized.
Circuses have been a historic source of animal-based entertainment for centuries. However, many threats exist to both the circus-going public and the circus animals themselves such as wild animal escapes, mistreatment, the sale of circus animals to “canned hunt” facilities, and more. Three types of animals most commonly used in circuses, elephants, big cats (e.g. tigers), and primates (e.g. chimpanzees), often face greater, more specific threats. Not all circuses use animals in their exhibitions, but where circuses do use animals, controversy and concerns abound.
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 circus animal training often involves negative reinforcement (abuse of animals). Abuse in circuses takes many forms, including 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 a form of this inhumane treatment.
Physical threats to the health and safety of circus animals are particularly troubling when considering that many animals in circuses are members of endangered species. While many circuses obtain permits to keep and breed endangered animals in circuses, claiming that they are enhancing the survival of the affected species, many endangered animals are lost each year because of their captivity and treatment by circuses.
Another threat to circus animals’ well-being comes after their servitude comes to an end in the form of “canned hunts.” Canned hunt enterprises offer patrons the opportunity to kill a tame former zoo or circus animal at close range, usually from a tree stand or off-road vehicle. Even if such an animal did attempt to escape, there is nowhere to run. Either because a circus deems the animal no longer useful or profitable or for other reasons, many circuses sell their castaway circus animals to these canned hunt facilities. Thus, the often unfortunate existence of some circus animals sometimes comes to an end in an even more inhumane manner when they are killed in “like fish in a barrel” at a canned hunt facility.
Economics also present a threat to circus animals’ well-being. The under-enforcement of animal welfare laws often makes lawful, compliant businesses unprofitable when they cannot economically compete with businesses that cut corners and costs by treating animals poorly while escaping enforcement.
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. To a far lesser extent, animal “activists” or “terrorists” also pose threats to the physical safety and economic success of circus staff and patrons.
Occasionally, animals escape from confinement at the circus and cause damage to property or persons. These escapes or “rampages” can sometimes be deadly for circus staff, circus-goers and the public. Additionally, spectators and trainers often provoke the animals to act or move, resulting in harm to those persons, and yet only the wild animals are usually punished, or are even killed, for acting on their instincts or the provocation. Unfortunate on all accounts, such incidents usually result in monetary loss for the property owners, costs to municipalities for animal control and police services, injury to persons and usually, physical harm and death for the escaped animal.
Additionally, many circuses claim that animal welfare “activists” or animal welfare-concerned persons risk economic harm to circuses as businesses, and possibly even physical harm to circus staff and patrons. Within the animal rights community, there is a wide spectrum of beliefs held and actions taken, ranging from non-violent, lawful protest to violent, unlawful action taken on behalf of animals. The latter category can cause economic damage to circuses and pose potential threats to the animals the activists are seeking to protect.
Since their arrival in the United States, circuses have been governed by federal and state authorities, at the demand of circus-goers and “leisure reformers,” often chiefly concerned with animal issues surrounding the circus. Despite the enactment of legislation 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.
At the federal level, the singular and primary piece of U.S. federal legislation regulating the use of animals in circuses is the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The AWA is the only federal law that directly regulates circus animals. Even then, the AWA is not a broadly stated anti-cruelty law. The AWA’s provisions provide only minimal standards for keeping animals for exhibitions (e.g. the AWA prohibits subjecting animals to “trauma, overheating, excessive cooling, behavioral stress, physical harm and unnecessary discomfort” of animals in circuses and elsewhere, but never defines the terms). Although well-intentioned, the practical reality when it comes to the AWA is that it is too vague and riddled with loopholes, and that enforcement is too taxed and lacking in resources to adequately protect circus animals.
Despite the mistreatment of animals in many circuses, state anti-cruelty laws do not always cover these animals. In 23 states, circuses are specifically exempted from these provisions. However, where states do have such laws on the books, the laws vary widely from state to state. Some state laws only mention circuses or circus animals just to say that they are excluded from animal anti-cruelty laws that would otherwise protect those animals.
Even where violations of other state and federal laws occur in circuses, litigants face other obstacles in bringing lawsuits against circuses. Most notably among the challenges is standing to sue, or who is injured and can bring suit for redress of their injuries. Since the United States considers animals property, and does not grant them rights or status as sentient beings, standing can be a tricky and often disappointing barrier to animal advocates’ attempts to improve conditions and treatment for circus animals.
There are also international laws in many countries governing animals in circuses. Overall, while the United States could definitely stand to improve the effectiveness, inclusivity and comprehensiveness of its laws, domestic laws are far from the best or the worst of the world’s countries’ laws on circus animals.
For a detailed legal analysis, see the Detailed Discussion