So You Think Circuses with Wild Animal Acts Are Over? Think Again!
An Entertainment Abuses Article from

FROM PAWS Performing Animal Welfare Society
May 2021

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be subsiding, circuses are going back on the road with elephants, big cats and other animals.

Elephant Gypsy
Former circus elephant Gypsy in her habitat at ARK 2000.

When the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus folded its big top forever in May 2017, many people believed it was the end of circuses with wild animal acts. We only wish that were true. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be subsiding, circuses are going back on the road with elephants, big cats and other animals.

Traveling shows include the Carden International Circus, Culpepper and Merriweather Circus, Tarzan Zerbini Circus, and Loomis Brothers Circus. Over the years these circuses have failed to meet minimum federal standards for the care of animals under the Animal Welfare Act. Citations range from failure to provide adequate veterinary care to the improper handling of animals, and failure to provide such basics as sufficient space, safe enclosures and proper nutrition. Some circus exhibitors, like Carson & Barnes and Franzen Bros., also rent out captive wild animals to other circuses.

Sadly, there are at least 20 elephants performing in circuses in the U.S. Many of them exhibit concerning signs of physical ailments, such as abnormal gaits that often signal foot and/or joint disorders. (Foot disease and arthritis are the leading reasons for euthanizing captive elephants.) Still, they are made to perform and give rides. Big cats spend prolonged periods of time in cramped cages that limit movement and the ability to avoid conflict with other cats, subjecting them to potential injury and death. Physical problems include obesity, cracked foot pads, and wounds. Both elephants and big cats are controlled through dominance and fear, and they display abnormal repetitive behaviors that are indicative of stress and poor welfare, such as swaying in elephants and pacing in big cats.

PAWS cares for three elephants and an African lion who came to us from circuses.

  • Prince was born at the Portland Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo) and sent to the circus before he was two years old an age at which baby elephants are still nursing and never apart from their mothers.
  • Nicholas was born into the circus, where he was made to perform tricks such as riding a tricycle and doing a balance beam act. By age five, he grew too strong and rebellious to be used in performances and was fated to be warehoused for the rest of his life.
  • Gypsy was snatched from her wild family and sold into captivity, where she spent an unimaginable 40 years, traded between at least six different circuses.
  • African lion Camba was held in a cramped cage in which she could barely stand up and turn around, trucked from town to town and forced to perform for noisy crowds.

All of these animals have a new life at PAWS, roaming large habitats nestled in the oak tree-dotted, rolling hills of our ARK 2000 sanctuary. They enjoy privacy, safety, and a peaceful, yet dynamic, environment that allows them to express their innate behaviors.

Lion Camba
Former circus lion Camba relaxes in her habitat at ARK 2000.

People often wonder why sanctuaries are not approached to take elephants or big cats from circuses. The truth is that circuses seldom do the right thing and allow the animals to live out the rest of their lives in a better place, away from traveling, performances, and noisy crowds.

Fortunately, local and state laws continue to be passed that ban the use of wild animals in traveling shows. But more are needed! Be sure to check out our newsletter item (below) on state legislation involving captive wild animals. If a bill has been introduced in your state, please take action to support it!

Return to Entertainment Abuses Articles