The Elephant in the Room

Michelle Land, director of the Pace Academy, discusses why using wild and exotic animals for entertainment acts is a cruel relic of a less enlightened society and why entertainment trends should instead focus on human skill and artistry.

By Michelle Land, director of the Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies

Pop quiz: What do  Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Peru, Israel, and Singapore all have in common that the United States does not (yet) share?

They have enacted a nationwide ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. Many other countries ban specific wild animals or those wild-born from performing in circuses. The UK government has issued a commitment to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, though legislation has not yet been enacted. Last year, U.S. Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA) introduced the first bill to comprehensively tackle the use of all wild animals in circuses in the United States. If passed, the bill would end the keeping of animals for extended periods in temporary facilities, the cruel training and control methods employed by circuses, and address public safety issues. It is not intended to impact zoos or other static facilities with captive wildlife. Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies is assisting with the drafting of a similar bill for New York State.

Why Do We Need to Protect Wild and Exotic Animals from Circuses?

The typical species used by traveling circuses are elephants, tigers, bears, and non-human primates. In the wild, elephants travel up to 30 miles a day and are practically in constant motion for 18-20 hours a day. Biologically, elephants need to move. Contrast the natural history of elephants with those that are kept in captivity, particularly traveling circuses, and we find that these animals may be confined to boxcars and trailers for thousands of miles a year—often nine to eleven months annually. Some elephants spend most of their lives in chains (up to 20 consecutive hours at performance venues and up to 100 hours continuously when traveling). When not performing or on the road, elephants are still chained and allowed to move only a few feet in each direction. Captive elephants often develop serious foot problems, which can shorten their life spans by more than 20 years. The number one health problem in captive elephants is foot problems; in the wild this is nonexistent.  Higher elephant mortality in captivity is also attributable to obesity due to lack of movement. In the circus, every aspect of their behavior is controlled. Engaging in natural behaviors as simple as throwing dirt on their backs or reaching out with their trunks to connect with a friend can result in punishment.

Other circus animals face similar fates: A tiger’s territory in the wild can range between 6-20 miles, whereas a circus cage is more than a million times smaller—typically 12’ x 12’ x 10’. In circuses, big cats spend their whole lives in cages, often pacing. Captivity has such a profoundly negative effect on big cats that, in October 2003, British researchers with Oxford University published a study in the journal Nature concluding that wide-ranging carnivores should not be kept in captivity. Similar examples of disparity between the realities of wild and captive existence are true for bears and non-human primates.

It is not surprising that the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums is against the inappropriate keeping of animals with high space requirements in circuses. Additionally, the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums does not permit its member establishments to supply animals to circuses. Even the Bronx Zoo in New York has announced that it will close the elephant exhibit once two or even one of its three elephants die, citing the distinctive traits of pachyderms and America’s changing standards when it comes to confining animals.

Training Cruelty Threatens Public Safety

Regardless of close and regular contact with humans, captive wild animal performers are unpredictable. Incidents involving harm to people can and do happen. Harsh training methods and public safety risks are inextricably linked.  Circuses force animals to perform acts that have nothing to do with how they behave in the wild. For example, the difficult tricks that elephants must perform, such as standing on two legs, sitting on tubs, or waving their trunks, place a great deal of stress on their muscles and joints. Elephant experts and veterinarians agree that elephants will not voluntarily perform these physically taxing and painful maneuvers on command, over and over, hundreds of times a year without the constant threat of punishment. No form of positive reinforcement alone will elicit such unnatural behaviors.

Because these are wild animals, they will never be predictable when performing unnatural stunts, so trainers use brute force to maintain a position of dominance. The animals perform out of fear. It is standard and accepted practice that training wild animals to perform unnatural tricks requires negative reinforcement using bull hooks, whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods and other tools. “Bull hooks” or “ankuses” are approximately three-foot long clubs with sharp metal hooks on the end.

In the case of elephants, researchers do not yet fully understand the psychological impact of dominance-oriented breaking methods on the psychological welfare of elephants. However, observations suggest that if the animal has the opportunity, it may become more aggressive and attack the trainer, causing injury or death. Worse still is the possibility of an elephant rampage with an audience in close proximity. Neither circuses nor venue personnel have a plan for such a terrifying incident.

Aren’t There Laws Against This?

The federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the primary form of protection afforded to circus animals. Unfortunately, the AWA creates only minimum housing and maintenance standards for animals in traveling exhibits and it is poorly enforced. Notably, the Animal Welfare Act does not prohibit any kind of cruel training methods. However, regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Animal Welfare Act do stipulate that “[p]hysical abuse shall not be used to train, work, or otherwise handle animals,” and that the “[h]andling of all animals shall be done . . . in a manner that does not cause trauma . . . behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort.” Unfortunately the enforcement of these regulations is difficult due to the lack of agency monitoring during training sessions, which is when it is more likely for animals to be mistreated. It is not uncommon for rehearsals on the road to be entirely different from the more significant training sessions that go on in the permanent training center, behind closed doors.

The USDA has about 120 inspectors who are responsible for more than 11,000 licensed facilities nationwide, which means that most facilities are inspected only once every 2-3 years. In fact, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) guidelines on inspections advise inspectors, “You do not have to inspect every circus or traveling exhibitor that exhibits in your territory.”  In 2005, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General issued a report stating that animal welfare officials in the department’s Eastern region (which covers all licensees east of the Mississippi River) were “lax” in punishing zoos and other facilities where people or animals are endangered.

The 21st Century Circus of Willing Performers

Luckily changes are starting to take shape: Just in the past year, Feld Entertainment Inc., which produces Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus received a record penalty of $270,000 from the USDA for violations of the Animal Welfare Act from 2007–2011. This was the likely result of numerous undercover videos obtained by animal advocacy organizations.

Animal-free circuses are also on the rise. Take for example Cirque du Soleil, known for its human-only performances, which has entertained more than 100 million people in 40-plus countries around the world since 1984 and grosses $700 million in annual revenue.

When the Cole Bros. Circus traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, in 2005 on its animal-free tour, it reported that the circus had its “best year…in a long time” and “can put on as good or better show than without the exotics.” Research recently undertaken by Pace’s Wilson Center for Social Entrepreneurship indicates that when the iconic Big Apple Circus headquartered in New York City eliminated its elephants from the show in 2005, the non-profit’s revenues were unaffected through 2010.

Today, animal circuses are down to only a handful of operations.  As more people are learning about the cruel realities of animal circus performers—especially wild, exotic animals—the public is growing uncomfortable with supporting such circuses, by opting to find alternative forms of entertainment.  Nearly 30 wild and exotic animal-free circuses perform throughout the United States. And this is exactly the direction society should be heading. Because when children are exposed to the negative and inaccurate messages circuses send, it contradicts the more valuable lessons of ecosystem function, habitat, animal behavior, and conservation.