The white Bengal tiger paces back and forth, back and forth in a squat cage on the edge of the show ring.

The cage is little longer than the tiger's body. The clock ticks down to the start of three scheduled performances at this fair in Pennsylvania. Potted palms and wooden masks decorate the ring and African-inspired music plays through speakers as the tiger traces and retraces her steps. Back and forth. Back and forth. “See him dancing around?” a mother in the stands asks her son. “He’s anxious—he wants to come out and give us a show!”

The Bengal has traveled here from Florida along with four other tigers, all of them likely hybrids—mixes of subspecies vanishing from the wild. Each tiger is locked in a little cage 24-7, except when released into the ring or when the small transfer cages are joined together to create a group run. This doesn’t always happen: Their owner was cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012 for keeping them confined for two days nonstop.

Illustration showing a loud noises directed at a tiger
Experts say tigers hate big crowds of people and loud noise. Prodded into the ring, they perform under threat of pain.

The music cuts off and the tigers’ owner and trainer announces himself, then strides into the ring to greet the audience of several hundred. Jovial, chuckling, he speaks through a wireless headset, “Is everybody ready to see some BIG, beautiful tigers?”

“Yeah!” cheers the crowd, laughing and applauding. (Experts say crowds stress tigers, as does noise.)

“Everybody, good and loud, let’s wake these tigers up!”

A 15-foot-tall metal fence, surrounded by a shorter white metal barrier, separates the ring from the audience. Immediately beyond the white fence, there is a row of elementary students on a field trip sitting cross-legged on the ground, about the same distance from which a group of kids at a 2016 Florida fair watched a tiger take down a trainer with one paw. The tiger bit her and dragged her screaming across the cage, stopping only when a second trainer beat the tiger furiously with a stick.

The door of the white tiger’s cage is raised and the 300-pound animal enters the ring. She is wet—someone has just hosed down her cage or used water to force her into the ring. She’s supposed to sit on a stand, but instead she walks toward the trainer. He motions her to reverse, but she continues, backing him up until he grabs a pole with a pointed end—a tool he tells the audience is just for feeding tigers meat kebabs. Poles like this are often used during training to inflict pain by jabbing tigers between the toes and prodding them in the hind quarters. Seeing the stick, the white tiger stops suddenly, turns and climbs up on the stand, ears back.

The trainer announces the arrival of another tiger. Experts say that though sibling pairs and mates may remain in each other’s company, generally forcing tigers into close proximity causes immediate and long-term distress. The 450-pound “Siberian” bursts into the ring and lunges at the white tiger, chasing her off her stand and once around the ring. After a tussle, both end up side-by-side on their stands.

Since this is billed as an “educational encounter,” the trainer delivers a string of tidbits about tigers. “There are more living in captivity than in the wild! If drastic measures aren’t done to save these species, they will become extinct! Pretty much their only and final frontier will be in captivity!”

A tiger scared as a trainer approaches
A tiger at a fair cringes and snarls in fear as a trainer approaches with a stick.
Jessica Reilly
Dubuque Telegraph Herald

Then the trainer introduces a third big cat, who emerges from her cage slowly, ears flattened back against her head. She cringes as she gets on her stand. “On the brink of extinction, let’s welcome our Sumatran tiger!” When the trainer reaches out his hand, the big cat flinches and snarls. “Did you hear that? I call this one here Grouchy Pants.” The tiger lowers her head and stares at the ground.

Illustration of a performing tiger at a traveling animals act
Solitary in the wild, tigers usually seek each other out only to mate. Forced together to perform for shows, they are in a constant state of stress.

More tigers come into the ring. Baited with a piece of meat, the white tiger sits up for a moment. A “Royal Bengal” jumps through a hoop a couple of times. Another tiger, who the trainer says is the dominant tiger of the group, jumps through the same hoop and rolls over (though the trainer has to grab her tail to get her to return to her stand). The “Siberian” leaps back and forth across a small fence. The “Sumatran”—appearing to be anxious and in distress—does nothing except swipe at the trainer. No meat treats for her.

After about 20 minutes, the performance is over. The big cats return, one by one, to their small cages. The audience drifts away. Without expert knowledge of tigers or training methods, many in the crowd probably feel they’ve seen a fun show: happy, if somewhat lazy, tigers performing for meat treats. Distracted by the excitement of live tigers and by the trainer’s spiel, they have missed troubling signals—the way the trainer’s assistant used a heavy metal pole to prod the tigers to move, the way the “Royal Bengal” leapt from the trainer when he jabbed the meat treat pole at the ground, as though shocked by an electric current. They have not seen what animal behavior experts who watch the same show readily do: a man using threats of pain to coerce wild animals into doing tricks.

Welcome to the world of traveling wild animal acts. Though North America’s biggest and most famous traveling animal show, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, closed for good in 2017, a host of smaller acts continue to tour, dodging scattered state and local bans, refusing to acknowledge changing public tastes and racking up citations for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. The Pennsylvania show—with just a few USDA inspection violations—is far from the worst. Common citations given to other owners include lack of veterinary care, inadequate food, cramped cages and filthy conditions. And the industry is poorly regulated: Rarely inspected, animal exhibitors can get away with leaving tigers in transport cages for months.

Hauled from place to place to perform, wild animals suffer terribly, say Humane Society of the United States experts. “They’re angry, they have no interest in doing tricks and they’re bored out of their minds,” says Lisa Wathne, HSUS captive wildlife protection manager. “Trainers’ claims that the animals enjoy performing or that the acts serve any kind of educational or conservation purpose are just a con.”

So is the common claim that animals are trained through positive reinforcement, says Debbie Leahy, also a captive wildlife protection manager for the HSUS. “Abusive training methods are industry practice. There is no other way to get a tiger to perform physically grueling, confusing acts for a chunk of meat. They have no desire to please their trainer.”

Abusive training methods are industry practice. There is no other way to get a tiger to perform physically grueling, confusing acts for a chunk of meat. They have no desire to please their trainer.

Debbie Leahy, the HSUS

The trainer at the Pennsylvania fair was injured while exhibiting his tigers at a Midwest festival in the early 2000s. One of the big cats knocked him down and clawed him. At first spectators thought it was part of the act, according to a report in a local newspaper, but his wound required 30 to 40 stitches. Such incidents are fairly common. A 2017 HSUS report on wild animals in circuses and other traveling shows found that 10 people have been killed and more than 200—including scores of children—have been injured since 1990 in the U.S. Frightened, confused or angry big cats, bears, elephants and primates have broken loose and run amok or attacked with little or no warning.

Governments have responded. Six states and nearly 150 other localities across 37 states have passed restrictions on the use of wild animals in circuses and traveling shows. Since 2014, 50 laws to protect wild animals in traveling shows have passed, many with the help of the HSUS. In 2016, California and Rhode Island banned the use of bullhooks, torturous devices used to punish and control elephants. In 2017, Illinois and New York banned the use of elephants in traveling shows.

The end of 2018 saw two big wins: New Jersey and Hawaii became the first two states to effectively ban traveling animal acts.

In Hawaii, Gov. David Ige approved a regulation from the state’s Board of Agriculture banning the import of dangerous wild animals for use in traveling shows. The measure came in response to an HSUS legal petition filed in 2014.

Nosey the elephrant being forced to give rides at a fair
For years Nosey the elephant gave rides at fairs, until an animal control officer confiscated her from her owner in 2017.
Carla Wilson
Nosey at a sanctuary in Tennessee
Nosey has been retired to a sanctuary.
The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill banning the use of tigers, lions, elephants, bears and primates in circuses and traveling shows. “Nosey’s Law” was inspired by the plight of an elephant captured as a baby from the wild in Africa and then trucked for years from city to city by a Florida circus to give rides at fairs and festivals. Her owner, Hugo Liebel, was cited by the USDA for more than 200 violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including chaining Nosey so tightly she could barely move. In 2017, an animal control officer in Alabama confiscated Nosey and charged Liebel with cruel neglect after discovering the elephant showing signs of stress and without access to adequate food and water. A veterinarian found she was suffering from dehydration, malnutrition, intestinal parasites and urinary tract and skin infections. (Nosey, diagnosed with arthritis and degenerative joint disease, is now living in a Tennessee sanctuary.)

In 2017, an HSUS undercover investigation documented the abuse behind traveling animal acts. The investigator recorded video of Ryan Easley, who uses the stage name Ryan Holder, hitting and whipping animals to force them to do tricks in his ShowMe Tigers act. The investigator witnessed Easley whip at one tiger 31 times in less than two minutes, making contact with her paws, chest and face and causing her to flinch, snarl and roar. A video clip reveals the impact of such treatment: Locked in cages, with the trainer yelling at them, the tigers cannot fight back or retreat. Instead, they moan, uttering long cries of pain and despair.

Jay Pratte, an animal behavior expert, trainer and wildlife consultant with 27 years of experience, said Easley’s “archaic” training methods, based on fear, force and punishment, are doing terrible damage. “In my professional opinion, the tigers are suffering from psychological neglect and trauma on a daily basis.”

Beyond the physical and emotional pain they cause, such situations are unnatural for the wild animals involved, says Pratte. Touring tigers, for example, have generally been raised in captivity among humans, rather than as tigers, and are confused about how to behave. “They tend to get mixed signals that can create a lot of conflict in them.”

The public does not realize how much danger they put themselves in by attending such shows. Multiple times in traveling acts, tigers have escaped from transport cages and run through parking lots at venues.

The public does not realize how much danger they put themselves in by attending such shows, Pratte says. Multiple times, tigers have escaped from transport cages and run through parking lots at venues. In one case, a tiger got loose inside an arena while being moved from a performance cage to a transfer cage. The tiger bolted into a nearby restroom where he encountered but fortunately did not attack a woman.

The Animal Welfare Act is supposed to protect wildlife in traveling shows (and the public), but the law’s weak regulations are poorly enforced, say Leahy and Wathne. Though inspections take place, few citations for violations of the law are issued. Since September 2017, the number of citations for violations has dwindled to near zero, Leahy says. The HSUS provided evidence to the USDA about apparent AWA violations the investigator observed and documented with Easley in 2017, but as of early this year had heard nothing back.

Increasingly, however, the animal entertainment industry is under a new kind of scrutiny. Spectators are watching wildlife shows through fresh eyes. Even as the remaining traveling acts try to avoid attention and protesters, moving from smaller city to smaller city with minimal publicity, audience members are recording shows on their cell phones. Those upset by what they see are posting scenes to social media.

Public opinion helped shut down Ringling Bros., and it can do the same with the remaining traveling wildlife acts, says Pratte. “It’s going to rely on people becoming more aware of what animals are experiencing. We have to convince them that each animal’s well-being is more important than a selfie.”

Every fall, Massachusetts advocate Sheryl Becker doggedly protests traveling wild animal acts at the Eastern States Exposition, or Big E, a huge fair in Springfield. For years, Becker says it felt like hardly anyone paid attention to her or the few other advocates asking Big E visitors not to go to a petting zoo with an elephant or take a ride on a camel or watch a circus that featured wild animals doing tricks. Nine Massachusetts towns have banned traveling animal acts, but they are still legal in the city of Springfield.

In 2018, though, shortly after the Big E opened, two members of the public independently posted on Facebook about what they saw as cruel treatment of animals at the fair by Commerford & Sons petting zoo, a Connecticut operation with Animal Welfare Act violations.

One visitor shared a video of a Commerford handler attempting to drag a camel to his feet: The handler pulls and pulls on the camel’s harness, but the animal remains on his knees. After the handler walks away, the camel still struggles on his knees, unable to get up.

Another visitor posted a photo of a 51-year-old elephant named Minnie, who Commerford uses to give rides for $10 apiece. Born in the wild in Thailand, Minnie was sold to the zoo when she was 4 and has been giving rides for decades. Early on, she attacked a worker and broke his arm. In 1989, while two children were on her back, she used her trunk to pick up a handler who had hit her with a stick and threw him against a trailer, breaking his shoulder and jaw. In 1998, she panicked during the New York State Fair, dumping a 3-year-old rider on the ground and stepping on a trainer. In 2006, she pinned two handlers to a loading dock as they were putting two children on her back. One handler suffered a chest injury and the other a broken arm.

At the Big E last fall, Minnie slowly circled part of a parking lot with as many as four people on her back, giving rides under the supervision of a handler with a bullhook. “Her feet hurt really bad,” the visitor wrote on Facebook. “She kept picking them up and shaking them and she was limping … I am ashamed of myself for even going to that fair.”

The posts about Minnie and the camel went viral. Suddenly, local television channels, news websites and a public radio station were covering animal welfare at the Big E. Dozens of protesters showed up with signs at the gate nearest the animal acts. More than 130,000 people signed a petition. Becker was elated.

“There is an awakening happening,” says Becker. “Everything is exposed. Nothing is hidden now.”

For a long time, the Big E insisted traveling wildlife acts were an important tradition that must continue. People brought up to accept such acts as fun and entertaining carried on visiting, as though nothing was amiss. But a younger generation is finally seeing through the “show.” They come away sad and shaken by the cruelty—and resolved to deliver animals from the show ring once and for all.

Help protect wild animals in traveling shows. Download Our Toolkit

Want more content like this?

This was written and produced by the team behind All Animals, our award-winning magazine. Each issue is packed with inspiring stories about how we are changing the world for animals together.

Learn MoreSubscribe
Cover of All Animals Magazine with a photo of a beagle puppy.