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Entertainment at animals' expense

The Humane Society of the United States

Confined Life of a Lion in a Circus

Beth Preiss / The HSUS

The Humane Society of the United States opposes the use of wild animals in circuses and other traveling acts because cruelty to animals is inherent in such displays. You can help us end such uses of wild animals by supporting federal, state, and local laws that protect captive wild and exotic animals.

An inhumane existence day after day

Wild animals used in circuses and other traveling acts are routinely subjected to months on the road confined in small, barren enclosures. Often, the animals are provided with limited and inconsistent veterinary care. These animals may live in filthy and dilapidated enclosures or be chained for the majority of the day--with no chance to move, let alone express their full range of natural behaviors or socialize with other members of their species. Their routine care is often entrusted to seasonal or temporary employees who have little or no experience caring for such animals.

How do they get them to do those tricks?

Despite claims to the contrary, trainers often use excessive and abusive training methods to establish and maintain the control necessary to make animals perform tricks. Although positive reinforcement is indeed part of a trainer's repertoire, it is by no means the only tool, and it is not enough to guarantee control of a four-ton elephant in the ring.

Regardless of training, wild animals used in circuses behave instinctively and unpredictably. On August 20, 1994, at a Circus International matinee in Hawaii, an African elephant named Tyke crushed her trainer to death, injured another circus worker and 12 spectators, ran loose in the streets for 30 minutes, and was killed after being shot more than 80 times by police. Such incidents bring to light not only the suffering endured by performing wild animals, but also the danger they can pose to circus workers and the public.

Who protects animals in the circus?

The only federal legal protection for these animals is the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which sets minimal standards for the handling, care, treatment, and transport of wild animals in circuses. AWA standards, enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are insufficient and inconsistently enforced. This combination of minimal standards and inadequate oversight permits circuses and traveling wild animal acts to keep wild animals in deplorable conditions and still be in compliance with the AWA.

Facilities that do not fully comply with the AWA are frequently given several chances to correct violations. Even persistent violators rarely face federal prosecution or lose possession of animals.

State and local cruelty laws may apply to circus animals, but the nature of the legal system and the fact that circuses are constantly on the move can work against successful prosecution.

Some communities have addressed the problem of performing wild animals in circuses by prohibiting circuses that use wild animals from operating within their jurisdictions.

Download a PDF of our brochure, "The Truth Behind the Big Top".


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