Behind the Sequins and Smiles: Animals in Circuses
An Animal Rights Article from


Brenda Shoss, Kinship Circle
May 2011

[Ed. Note: Watch Ringling Brothers Elephant Abuse to see what some animals endure to "entertain" humans in circuses.]

Silly animal tricks do not warrant disease, pain and death. The "Greatest Show On Earth" is the one with enough compassion to delete animal acts from its repertoire.

People rarely link the word slavery with animals in circuses. Most recall their kid's-eye glimpse of elephants on platforms and airborne tigers inside fiery hoops. Everyone is entitled to this innocent entertainment, right? Animals are part of the circus tradition.

Take a closer look. Behind the sequins and smiles, circus trainers are armed with bullhooks, electric shock prods, axe handles, metal pipes, whips, or sticks. Wild animals perform because they are afraid of violent repercussions. Unlike dogs or cats, they don't respond to positive reinforcement. In fact, natural instinct urges them to shun unsafe balances, fire, or large crowds. A circus trainer's job is to break the animal's will and overpower it with terror tactics.

"If it will not sink in, then beat it in. It's the only way to make an elephant do the performance right," maintains a Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus trainer in an affidavit filed by former employees. In another complaint filed with the U.S. government, a onetime Ringling worker describes a handler who beat an elephant's groin, which "resulted in the metal hook penetrating the skin and causing an open wound from which blood began flowing."

A circus animal's life includes chains, beatings and food/water deprivation to prevent "a mess" in the ring. Front paws are burned to force animals onto hind legs. Big cats are "choked down" with neck ropes. Chimps are clubbed repeatedly. Handlers chain elephants from tusks to feet. The animals perform up to three shows a day, with 50 weeks of travel in filthy, unventilated railroad cars. Despite the "we love our animals" spin from publicity agents, this is all standard practice. Henry North Ringling states in his book, The Circus Kings, that "all sorts of brutalities are used to force the animals to respect the trainer and learn their tricks. The animals work from fear."
But don't take my word for it. Anyone with access to the internet can locate the USDA homepage, to review topics under its APHIS/Animal Care branch. They can find out, just as I did, that 21 Ringling animals died over the last five years, due to brutal training or inadequate-care incidents.

Check out USDA-APHIS #58-C-0035 to learn how the Shrine-sponsored Royal Hanneford Circus forced a tuberculosis-infected elephant to perform, while housing other elephants with infected nails, ventral edema and chronic arthritis. Read USDA #58 C-0644 to discover how a Sterling & Reid Circus trainer smacked a lion's face repeatedly with a broken hockey stick. In 1999 alone, the USDA charged Sterling & Reid with 46 non-compliance violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

There are literally thousands of neatly filed reports. But who is to blame-the circuses who profit from animal misery or the U.S. government, a well-meaning "parent" who rarely disciplines its unruly child? Most circuses have not suffered consequences for flagrant cases of animal cruelty and neglect.

When I wrote to Betty Goldentyer, Eastern Regional Director USDA/APHIS/AC, in regard to leg lesions found on two Ringling baby elephants who'd been forcibly separated from their mothers, I quoted Dr. Wm. Ron DeHaven, USDA/APHIS Animal Care deputy administrator: "We believe there is sufficient evidence that the handling of these animals caused trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and discomfort." Ms. Goldentyer informed me that "non-compliance" was documented to "serve as a warning that repeat non-compliance of this sort will be scrutinized and could lead to formal legal action."

Baby elephants normally nurse until two or three and retain a lifelong social bond with their herd. Early separation is stressful enough, but to violently rope or chain the animals violates anti-cruelty laws. Why was Ringling Bros. merely scolded?

It's no wonder that circus elephants snap after years of systematic abuse. According to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), "since 1983, at least 28 people have been killed by captive elephants performing in circuses and ride exhibits. Over 70 others have been seriously injured."

Due to the recent rise in elephant rampages, Representative Sam Farr introduced the Captive Elephant Accident Prevention Act. The Senate is expected to propose a companion bill which will also ban the use of elephants in circuses and for the purpose of rides.

People can safely learn about wild animals at a library, on television programs and films, or inside a wildlife refuge. Elephants naturally roam 20 to 50 miles everyday, pausing to indulge in mud and dust baths. Circus elephants are shackled and shipped around the country in sweltering box cars. When Kenny fatally collapsed in 1999, after performing in two Ringling Bros. shows with gastrointestinal and upper respiratory infections, the three-year-old elephant finally found peace.

Silly animal tricks do not warrant disease, pain and death. The "Greatest Show On Earth" is the one with enough compassion to delete animal acts from its repertoire.

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