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Lion Track icon Lion Den » Other Stuff » Circus » Animal FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

About circus animals

Here are a few samples of the kinds of questions I hope to address:

What kinds of animals are usually presented in circuses?

Where do these animals come from?

Do all circuses display performing animals?

What is the difference between a menagerie and a circus?

How are lions and tigers trained?

What are black panthers? How do black panthers behave?

How are elephants trained?

Are circus animals physically healthy?

Are circus animals mentally/behaviorally healthy?

Can one really "tame" a wild animal?

Are circus animals dangerous?

Do circus trainers/handlers abuse animals?

What kind of conditions are circus animals kept in?

Does travel harm circus animals?

Why to lions and tigers pace in their cages?
Why do elephants sway in place?

Should circuses with animals be banned?

I have heard from many people that circus and zoo animals are drugged. Is this true?

Where do circus animals go when they retire?

Related links

If you'd like to submit a question to me, forward your question to:

I also welcome queries from legislators, circuses, zoos, and animal welfare groups.

Hey, these are MY opinions. You are entitled to yours, as well. If I've made any errors of fact, they are unintentional and I enthusiastically welcome correction.

What kinds of animals are usually presented in circuses?

There are two major types of animals presented in circuses: domestic animals and exotic animals.

Domestic or domesticated animals are those that are generally accepted as having been bred in captivity for the purpose of living and working with humans. Examples found in the circus are:

Dogs -- A popular variety is the poodle because of its high activity and high trainability, but many different breeds and mixes have been used in circuses.

Cats -- There haven't been too many "house cat" acts because of the difficulty of training and their small size (they are too hard to see in the ring!). But there have been some—and some of those have been outstanding.

Horses -- One of the most popular of circus animals.

Pigs -- Not too common, but a highly trainable species.

Cows -- Rarely seen.

Chickens -- Rarely seen.

Pigeons & domestic doves-- Occasionally seen.

Camels -- Occasionally seen but sometimes difficult to train and work with.

Llamas -- South American camel occassionally seen, but hard to work with.

Goats -- Occasionally seen.

Elephants -- SOME governments recognize elephants as domesticated but I disagree.

Exotic or wild animals have not been, and probably cannot be, bred for domestication. Some of the more popular wild animals seen in circuses are:

Elephants -- On all counts, these are wild (not domesticated) animals, in my opinion

Lions -- Less popular than a century ago, still occasionally seen.

Tigers -- The most popular of the big cats of the circus. White tigers and alternate color variations are ordinary genetic mutations of the Bengal tiger. There are several subspecies of tigers seen in circuses: Siberian (largest), Bengal (large), Sumatran (not quite so large). Bengals and Sumatrans are sometimes preferred because they seem to be more active and agile.

Leopards -- Difficult to work with, so they are less often seen among the big cats. Black panthers and spotted leopards are the same species (they may even be litter mates).

Other cats -- In the past, circuses have featured jaguars, cheetahs, cougars, and other big cats (and you may still see them rarely). Most smaller wild cats are not suitable for circus performances because of their small size and difficulty in training and handling.

Apes -- Chimpanzees and, less often, orangutans have seen the circus. Relatively rare in recent times.

Monkeys -- Baboons and occasionally other species of monkeys have been used in circuses, but far less in recent times.

Bears -- Polar bears and grizzlies are among the largest and most dangerous. Smaller brown bears and black bears are more commonly seen. Rarely, other species are seen.

Sea lions -- Also (incorrectly) called seals, sea lions are rarely exhibited in circuses in recent years but continue to perform in theme parks and other permanent shows.

This is not an all-inclusive list of circus animals, but it gives you the most often seen types.

Where do these animals come from?

Nearly all domesticated animals used in circuses are born in the circus, on a farm/ranch, or at a breeding facility. However, often dog trainers will rescue their animals from public or private animal shelters.

Elephants (which are classified as "domesticated" by law in some countries and "wild" by law in other countries) may be from the wild or from captivity. For many years now, wildlife protection laws permit the import of elephants into most countries only in specific circumstances, such as the fact that they were orphaned (accidentally, as in poaching of the mother, or intentionally, as in culling of a herd too large to exist in good health in a reserve or wild area) or culled or injured. Most circus elephants in the U.S. at this writing were imported before such bans existed (elephants often live many decades in captivity, about as long as a human lifespan) or were born in captivity or were imported under the best-practice management rules of the import regulations.

With (very) rare exception, other wild animals used in circuses were born and raised in captivity. International and local regulations prohibit taking many species of wild animals from nature --the only exceptions being when animals are rescued from poachers or other hazardous situations. Many circus animals are born to circus parents. Those that aren't born in the circus are often surplus animals from other other facilities that may have been destroyed if not adopted.

Federal, state, and sometimes local, permits are usually required to possess and/or exhibit both domesticed and wild animals in the circus. These permits nearly always require detailed, regular inspections by trained professionals and carry stiff penalties for violations in housing, care, and handling of the animals. More than any other time in our history, such regulations are rigorously enforced.

Do all circuses display performing animals?

No. The modern circus came into being as an animal exhibition, but the circus format that evolved from these early shows has also been used by a few all-human troupes. There is some disagreement among circus fans about whether a circus is truly a circus without non-human animals in the show. What do you think?

What is the difference between a menagerie and a circus?

Generally speaking, a menagerie is a collection of animals that may be on exhibit. It could be housed at a permanent location, such as a menagerie owned by a wealthy individual or in a zoo. Or it could be mobile, perhaps moving among state fairs, carnivals, and other locations. A circus may have a menagerie. That is, a circus may have a collection of animals. If so, the animal collection alone is the menagerie and the whole organization, including the human performers, is the circus. Animals in circus menageries may be used for exhibit, education, draft work, and/or performance work.

How are lions and tigers trained?

This question has as many answers as there are wild animal trainers. Maybe more. Not only does each trainer have his or her own way of doing things, but each animal has a different personality and so requires different methods of training. I'll try to be brief with my answer, but this really should be a book-length answer.

One popular style of training big cats today is to use a variation of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning, first described by psychologist B.F. Skinner, is when positive rewards applied in a systematic way change an animal's behavior. This is what happens when you reward your puppy with a treat for sitting up. The reward reinforces the behavior, so the puppy does it again the next time you offer a treat in the same way and say "sit."

Another step to operant conditioning, besides giving the reward for the desired behavior, is to give a cue. This may be a verbal cue such as "sit" or it may be a hand signal or body movement or whistle or whatever. This links the behavior to the reward, saying to the animal "you'll get a reward, but only if you do the behavior at my cue."

The next step to this technique is to add a "bridge" signal. This is a signal that occurs after the cue and after the animal has successfully completed the desired behavior. (By the way, in psychology lingo it's "behavior" and in circus lingo it's "trick.") It says to the animal, you've done it right and your reward is coming.

With big cats, the rewards include bits of meat (usually on the end of a stick to avoid accidentally rewarding the cat with a human finger or two) or verbal praise, or something the cat likes. The cue is usually a verbal signal, a particular snap of the whip, a movement of the stick, or some certain body movement. The bridge may be a verbal "well done" or a whistle or something subtle to the audience but visible to the cat. The reward may be given right away, especially if the cat is still learning the behavior. However, when the behavior has been taught, the reward comes at feeding time at the end of the day. For cats, the bridge is often a reward in itself because the reassuring tones of the trainer are comforting to the cat.

Another approach to training is to move the cat around to nudge it into performing the desired behavior. Again, some sort of cue is used so the cat can associate the cue with the behavior. Repetition usually results in the cat learning to perform the behavior at the cue.

When I say "nudge" I DO NOT mean inhumanely pushing it around. And, heavens, I certainly do not mean striking or beating the cat. Yikes, I don't know how a mortal person could overpower a lion or tiger that way, anyway. Secondly, if a person really could make a big cat do something it didn't want to do by physical coercion, then the cat would be resentful and may attack (now or later). At the very least, strong coercion would make the cat an unwilling participant ---something that all trainers want to avoid. Yes, there have been isolated cases of trainers trying this sort of thing. Most don't survive in the business (or don't survive, period). These are isolated cases of abusive training and don't define the usual practice in the business, any more than abusive parents define the nature of parenthood.

"Nudging" can be done by getting in the cat's territorial space and thus getting the cat to move around as it would in nature. There are two "personal territories" that each cat has. One is the "outer ring" around the cat. If you step into this outer ring, the cat feels threatened and will usually back away from you (especially if you appear confident, thus "bluffing" a superior strength). You can step just into the cat's outer ring (once you've figured out where that is for a particular cat; it varies) and thus "nudge" it into a some desired spot, perhaps even having to jump over a hurdle or something, by simply walking toward the cat.

If you want the cat to come toward you, you can suddenly move into the "inner ring" or second personal territory of the cat. Once you've crossing into this closer personal space of the cat, the cat will go on the defensive and come at you. If there is a hurdle between you and the cat, the cat may jump the hurdle (which may be what you are trying to get the cat to do). If there is a big ball between you and the cat, the cat may jump on the ball to get at you. If you step back at that point, you are out of the cat's inner circle, and the cat MAY stay on top of the ball. Viola! Just what you wanted!

Of course, getting in a cat's face this way has its dangers, certainly. But an experienced and sufficiently knowledgeable trainer can do this more "gently" than this sounds --not sparking an all out "attack" but simply getting the animal to move toward you, even if a little grouchy about it. Another way the danger is minimized is by using a stick or whip or something to get closer to the cat to trigger this reaction rather than using your body.

Notice that I've mentioned whips twice now and never in the context of beating or hitting an animal with it. Duh-uh! That's a quick way for your widow to collect on your life insurance. Whips are used to extend the arm of a trainer and to deliver cues. When you hear the whip pop, that is a little sonic boom created by the high speed of the tip of the whip --and a clear sign that the whip has not made contact with an animal or any other object.

Yet another way to nudge an animal is to put a leash or harness on it and move it that way. Sort of like when you get your dog to follow you at "heel" by nudging its leash. Cats don't often react very well to this sort of approach, but it works sometimes. And sometimes it produces remarkable results.

Most often, trainers use some combination of these methods --with refinements of their own-- depending on the animal's personality, the trainer's personality, and the nature of the trick itself.

Not all cats like to perform. You simply don't see these particular cats in a circus. They most often end up in a zoo, where you see them doing nothing all day. The only cats you see in a circus love to perform. Otherwise they simply wouldn't perform and no circus will display an act of cats that won't come out of their dens. (And, remember, you can't FORCE a cat to perform.)

What are black panthers? How do black panthers behave?

The term "panther" refers to any of the large cats and is part of the scientific name of most of them (for example, Panthera leo is the lion, Panthera tigris is the tiger, Panthera pardus is the leopard, and so on).

A black panther is the melanistic form of any of the big cats. That means that because of a variation in their genes, these cats produce far more melanin than is usual for their species. Melanin includes both the dark brown ("black") pigments and the orange/tan pigments in these cats and it's the dark brown form that is overproduced in the fur of melanistic cats.

Most often the term "black panther" is used for a melanistic leopard, but sometimes also for a melanistic cougar or jaguar.

Black panthers can be born to normally colored parents and have normally colored siblings, because the trait seems to be recessive in its inheritance.

There have been many cat trainers over the years who have insisted that black panthers are "meaner" or "sneakier" or "less reliable" than the normally colored cats. I am not aware of any scientific studies that examine the question, however. In my own experience with melanistic cats, I agree that that they do seem different than their normally colored cousins. But that may be due to my having previously heard to expect that to be true. In other words, it may simply be a bias based on a myth and there many not be any behavioral difference.

IF there is a behavioral quality unique to melanistic leopards, then it could be explained by:

1. Their behavior is different because it is influenced or observed by handlers or observers who EXPECT to see a difference; and/or

2. Their behavior is different because there are genes that influence behavior and these genes are linked to the genes for color/melanism; and/or

3. Their behavior is different because their coloration causes other organisms to behave differently toward them.

I think perhaps all three explanations are true to some extent. But that's based on a guess . . . not any scientific evidence.

NOTE: Leopards (black or not) and jaguars (black or not) are rarely seen in performance for several reasons. First, as species they are not behaviorally well-suited to human-animal interaction in the style needed for a consistent performance (for example, they are not "focused" enough). Second, they are so much smaller than the bigger species (lions, tigers) that they are more difficult to see by audience members in a large circus ring or on stage.

How are elephants trained?

There are probably as many answers to this as there are elephant trainers. And I need to clarify that I've never done the initial stages of elephant training myself. Only a wee bit of experience in the later stages and a little bit of experience presenting trained elephants.

The initial stages of training an elephant are different than the later stages, so let's be clear about that first.

The first stages of elephant training are called "breaking" an elephant. This is an unfortunate term, as it is also when used with horses (as in, "saddle-breaking a horse"). It sounds as if the intent or effect is to either "break the spirit" or physically injure the animal. But that is not the meaning of the term at all. It's simply a very old word that also refers to the initial stages of animal training . . . term used for animal training long before elephants were trained in circuses. It probably comes from the agricultural term that originally meant preparing a field for farming . . . thus meaning here "preparing an animal" by getting it to relax around people and work with them.

The new elephant is basically restrained by chains and or ropes that are strong enough to keep the animal in place and not run around and injure itself during the initial phases. Chains seem very "slave like" so become symbolic for anti-animal activists but very little else can safely hold an elephant comfortably. Besides, chains are much more sanitary than alternative restraints.

The chains and ropes, along with stout sticks, are used to gently but firmly push and pull the animal into some basic natural positions so that they associate the verbal cue with the desired action. This process may seem rough at times because elephants are large and they are strong. But it really is no harsher than pushing your dog's butt down to teach her to "sit" on cue. Or tugging at your dog's leash to get it to walk at "heel" alongside you. The stout sticks are for prodding an animal and NOT for "beating" the animal. Yikes, that'd be a good way to ensure the trainer's early death . . . when the animal is released, it will certainly react to the beating. Duh-uh.

After the initial stages of learning that the trainer wants different actions and positions, the elephant progresses to the later stages of training. These later stages are based on two main principles:

1. Rewards and treats given for learning new behaviors or consistently doing "old" behaviors.

2. The relationship dynamics of between the animal and her trainers/handlers. In other words, the same interspecies communication you experience between you and your dog.

Mature elephant-trainer relationships are very much like other very close human-animal relationships and often involve individualized styles of communication.

Are circus animals physically healthy?

The short answer: yes!

The longer answer: coming soon!

Are circus animals mentally/behaviorally healthy?

The short answer: yes!

The longer answer: coming soon!

Can one really "tame" a wild animal?

The short answer: no!

The longer answer: coming soon!

Are circus animals dangerous?

The short answer: sometimes (for handlers) and rarely (for audience)

The longer answer: coming soon

Do circus trainers/handlers abuse animals?

Actually the question was first posed to me this way:

My question is, why are most animal trainers at circuses so cruel to the animals? They don't deserve it.

Thanks for your question. I agree with its implication that cruelty to animals is undeserved and should not be allowed to happen.

I happen to disagree with your assumption that "most animal trainers at circuses [are] cruel to the animals." Your question is followed by the statement "they don't deserve it," which I assume you mean to apply to the animals not deserving cruelty dealt to them by animal trainers. I would turn it around and state that animal trainers don't deserve the implication that they are cruel.

First, let's get over the idea that animal trainers, or even animals, are all or even "mostly" the same. "All" animal trainers aren't a homogenous group and "all" animals are not a homogenous group. Given that, I agree that "some" animal trainers are cruel and "some" animals don't seem to enjoy life in a circus. However, after studying this issue first hand, including behind the scenes on a day-to-day basis for some decades and on several continents, I can say that cruel animal trainers and animals that seem discontent with circus life are not at all common. Far rarer, I think, than cruel parents or cruel teachers or cold and uncaring physicians.

I wonder if you have observed alleged cruelty in a circus first hand, or are basing your opinion on what you have heard from others, perhaps even from groups that gain financially from exaggerated claims of animal cruelty in order to increase donations to their cause (and higher salaries and expense accounts for their staff members).

Some visitors to the circus mistake humane behavior as cruelty. Almost unbelievably, this is quite common. Here are some examples of common mistakes by circus visitors.

1. Some people think animals like what we like (have the same preferences for food, space, aesthetics of surroundings, smells, opportunities to take a vacation at Lake Tahoe, and so on). They don't. Regardless of the false anthropomorphic behaviors staged in television and film productions, it just isn't so. A room at the Ritz would be terrifying –or at least very uncomfortable-- for a tiger or a pony. Many animals actually feel safer in a more confined and predictable environment.

2. Some people think loud talk is cruel. While it may be cruel to yell at a puppy who is behaving in a way that we don't like, in a circus setting (especially a performance or a training session) it may not be. It's really hard to hear softer sounds under those circumstances, and a loud voice then becomes the most humane and accurate way to communicate verbally with an animal, especially at a distance over a couple or so meters. I've found in my own experience that big cats, elephants, horses, and other animals often become confused and frightened when they can tell that they are being addressed but can't figure out what is being addressed to them. Not fear of punishment, but the fear that comes along with anxiety and confusion. Animals are programmed behaviorally to react this way as a survival mechanism in their natural environment. In captivity, it would be cruel to thus confuse and disorient them --the best way to be humane is to yell. At least sometimes. It really doesn't hurt their feelings –it actually saves them.

3. Some people think that cages and restraints are cruel. Again, this is a false perspective in most cases. I don't want to be caged or chained or put on a leash. Well, that's not exactly true. I want to be restrained in a cage when in shark-infested waters or when among lions in the Serengeti plain of Africa. Likewise, I want to be restrained in a space capsule while in space or by a "shackles" when on a spiraling roller coaster, or by ropes or chains when climbing on a steep cliff. Those cages and restraints would not be cruel; it would indeed be cruel to not allow me to use them. Think also of children "chained" into auto safety seats and strollers. Think of patients shackled or strapped to gurneys as they are transported to the surgery room. Perhaps it may be surprising for you to know that most animals restrained in a circus feel safer that way.

4. Some people think chains to restrain elephants are cruel. First, read point 3 above. Second, consider the size and weight of a chain and the size and strength of an elephant. Relatively speaking, it's less than putting a leash on a dog. Really. Next consider the fact, that animal experts have tried nearly everything else they can think of to safely and humanely restrain an elephant besides chains and nothing else works. Flexible straps become wet and infection-causing and also wear out too quickly for safety. Chains are strong, flexible and as comfortable for the elephant to wear as gold chains on the necks and wrists of humans. For humans, chains have a connotation of prisoners and slaves. But that is a false perception . . . a strictly emotional interpretation. It is not the reality of the situation and is certainly not perceived in that way by the animals themselves.

5. Some people think the small cages used during circus performances or during transport are the only available spaces for these animals. First, consider point 3 above and realize that the amount of space we feel comfortable in may not be anything like the amount of space preferred by a particular animal. Then consider the fact that most often, these transport cages are just that –for TRANSPORT. They are used during performance times and while traveling for practical and safety reasons. Usually, larger exercise pens and even huge outdoor yards are also available to these animals at other times. The few minutes you see the animals before, during, and after a circus performance is no more a reflection of their entire lives than are those few minutes crammed in your car, then in the ticket line, then in crowded bleacher section, a reflection of the conditions in which you live your life.

6. Some people consider the use of a whip or stick in animal training to be cruel. The real story is that the whip or stick is used as an extension of a trainer's arm. So in that respect, it is no more cruel than allowing a person to keep their arms on their bodies when approaching an animal. Of course, if a trainer beats an animal with such a device, that is cruelty. However, trainers typically do not make such contact with their animals. Most often the whip or stick is used only as a non-contact signal or cue (whips that make contact do not snap or crack, by the way). Perhaps a nudge, as you might give a child who is straying too close to traffic, but only that. The exception is the rare case of self-defense, where enough force is applied to defend oneself or another animal but no more. Beating wild or domestic animals simply does not work as a training method –it will ruin the animals for future human contact and thus render a trainer's livelihood worthless. By the way, the hooked sticks often used in elephant handling (a "bull hook" or "ankus") may look kind of like a spear or harpoon but they are not used that way. The pointed tips of these tools are needed so that an elephant can feel a nudge through skin that is often an inch thick! Elephant handlers go to great lengths to avoid accidental punctures or painful prods for two very good reasons: to avoid scars and infections in the elephant and to avoid a sudden counterattack by an animal that can crush a person instantly. Whether they CAN do harm and whether such hooks ARE in fact used to do harm are questions that have two different answers.

All this being said, I still haven't covered all the issues that I could. But I think it's enough to get my point.

However, I must address the issue of real cruelty to animals in the circus. That is, does it occur? My answer? Yes. But very rarely. Child abuse occurs, but it is not the ideal nor the norm and thus I don't condemn parenthood. Like that case, we should all be vigilant for abuse of animals or people (or plants and geological formations, for that matter). I agree –none of us deserve it. When we suspect abuse, it should be reported to experts (e.g., local humane officers or veterinarians) who can assess the reality of the situation and take steps to correct it. And I agree that it must be stopped. However, I caution circus visitors to get all the facts about what they are seeing before they judge what is abusive and what is not.

What kind of conditions are circus animals kept in?

The short answer: healthy, safe conditions

The longer answer: coming soon!


Does travel harm circus animals?

Of course there is always a risk in travel. There are occasionally accidents on the road (or rail) and animals are injured or killed. As are people. I've never found any statistics on this, but I'd bet a higher percentage of people are killed during travel than circus animals. And of animals killed during travel, I'd guess that a very low percentage are circus animals. Why? Because circus animals are moved so frequently, and because their keepers' livelihood depends on the safety of their animals, circus transport of animals is likely to be safer than say . . . pet transport. Or farm animal transport.

A study in Applied Animal Behaviour Science by university researchers found that circus tigers, when transported after a performance, mostly slept. Sometimes, at the end of a long (4 hr or so) trip, they did get up and pace . . . perhaps in anticipation of food or another performance (see below).

My own experience with circus animals is that during transport, the animals are frequently checked and provided with any needs they have during the trip. Most trips for most circus animals are under 3 hours in duration . . . often much less.

Because of the safe conditions and equipment, and the attentive care of their keepers, I do not believe that transport is directly harmful to circus animals. It poses no greater danger (and perhaps much less) than commuting by people.

Why do lions and tigers pace in their cages?
Why do elephants sway in place?

According to carefully controlled scientific research reported in the journal by Dr. Ted Friend (and others) of Texas A&M University, tigers and elephants in the circus pace and sway just before performances or feeding in anticipation of something they want. It's a positive behavior . . . not a sign of a troubled psyche. As quoted in an article in News in Science about these findings, Professor Dennis Schmitt of Missouri State University concurred with the conclusions and pointed out that even humans exhibit stereotypical behaviors that reflect positive anticipation of an event.

Dr. Friend's observations corroborate my own first-hand experience as an animal caregiver in zoos and circuses . . . and my own direct observations of elephants and lions in the wild. They can't wait to eat; they can't wait to perform (at least those animals in circuses or other performance venues). It's what they do; it's what they look forward to. My own children, as toddlers, did the same thing before "popcorn time" too.

When you see a circus animal swaying or pacing, you may get the idea (or be told by anti-circus people) that it's a sickness, but it's really a natural and healthy anticipation of something the animals really like.


Should circuses with animals be banned?

The original question was much more detailed, but here is a shortened version of it:

I am a legislative aide for [name withheld]. We received a message from a constituent concerned about the training of elephants and urging the [legislator] to support not allowing circuses that have elephants from performing in [a state]. Not knowing much about the subject I was disappointed not to find more information available about training of circus animals. Any information you could give is appreciated.

Thank you for pursuing this issue --an important one in many ways. Not the least reason it is important is that an American tradition with deep roots in your particular region--the circus--is threatened by recent political activity.

As you indicate in your letter, there is very little information available to the general public about the reality of life for animals in the circus. Very few scientific studies have been done for lack of funding in this area. There is great political pressure to stop circuses, but not to fund research to see whether they should be stopped. It turns out that I know why. What little research has been done shows that circus animals are as healthy or healthier than in the wild or in zoos and are not ordinarily abused or mistreated. A few years ago, a large, respected organization in England with anti-circus sentiments recruited a sympathetic and highly respected veterinarian to do a thorough study and was embarrassed to find that her results showed the beneficial (not harmful) effects of circus life for performing animals.

That researcher, Dr. Marthe Kiley-Worthington, published her findings in the book ANIMALS IN CIRCUSES AND ZOOS: CHIRON'S WORLD? In her conclusion, she states, "There was no evidence for cruelty or prolonged pain and suffering during the training of the animals I witnessed." These included mostly elephants and big cats. She also has a quite a bit of information that reports a favorable finding on other aspects of the circus elephant's life (besides just training and performance).

My position, one formulated after decades of personal experience and research (not to mention doctoral training in this field), is that our society should take seriously our responsibility to the animals who share our world. This includes being vigilant of their care and treatment in a variety of settings, including the circus. It also means enacting laws that enforce humane treatment of all animals.

Given that, I disagree with any law that bars circuses or circus animals across the board. This does not serve anyone, least of all the animals in circuses. If there is a concern about circus animal welfare in your community, then I applaud your community for its thoughtfulness and maturity. However, a more appropriate legislative response would be to ensure that there are adequate mechanisms in your community to prevent cruelty.

I am somewhat appalled by the whole notion of an anti-circus bill --a proposition that strikes me as uncomfortably Orwellian in its approach. Apply this to another profession, and I think my perspective becomes clear. A lot of people in our community are dissatisfied with politicians and the political machinery that governs us. After all, we hear many reports of politicians who lie, cheat, and steal. Last night, our local news broadcast a videotape of a candidate for city council destroying his opponent's election signs. Yikes. Would an appropriate response be to claim that politicians are BY DEFINITION immoral? Or to define politics or political activity as immoral? Wow, with such overwhelming evidence, shouldn't that be true? Shouldn't we BAN politicians from our community? Of course not! We should do what we can to ensure that this BEHAVIOR is not tolerated, but it is against the very grain of our culture to condemn a whole group because of the bad behavior of a fraction of the group.

I have heard from many people that circus and zoo animals are drugged. Is this true?

Thanks for your question, which is a good one! I can't tell you how many people really do believe that circus animals are drugged for performances.

The late Gunther Gebel-Williams, a wild animal trainer with Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus who influenced a whole generation of animal trainers and handlers, says this in his autobiography, UNTAMED:

"I will not tolerate the use of drug in animals or people. . . I never gave drugs to my animals, and the most I ever took was a painkiller when my teeth were knocked out. . . People can, for the most part, control what goes into their bodies, but animals cannot stop a person from giving them drugs, and that constitutes cruelty." (UNTAMED p. 324)

There are several issues Gunther brings up in his remarks that are important for understanding the answer to your question.

First, as with Gunther, I don't know of a single wild animal trainer or handler in the circus who drugs his or her animals for training or performance. I know over a hundred trainers/handlers and have studied the practices of dozens more.

The reasons for this are simple:

1. Drugged animals are unpredictable and therefore even more dangerous then if they are not drugged. The ONLY real protection a wild animal trainer has is his or her knowledge of normal animal behavior. This protection is lost completely with an animal that is not capable of acting normally.

2. Drugged animals are lethargic. Although many big cats appear lethargic sometimes because that is their natural behavior (when not chasing antelope), they couldn't be coaxed to raise their heads, much less get up onto their pedestal, if they were drugged even a little bit. In fact, you wouldn't see a drugged big cat in a circus performance because there would be no way to get the animal out into the ring! Multiply that by ten for elephants!

3. Even if you could find a drug that could be administered at a low enough dose to avoid the problems cited in the previous items, the drugged animal would not be able to perform trained behaviors accurately or safely.

I have worked with animals that have been drugged for medical purposes (for example, tranquilized to more safely administer veterinary treatment). The option of tranquilization, even in medical treatments, is always a last resort because of the issues brought up above. Not to mention the medical risks of harmful, perhaps unexpected, drug side effects. I would certainly never risk working in the ring with an animal thus drugged.

Another aspect of Gunther's statement revolves around people. Most animal handlers and trainers in the circus avoid even mild cold medications because they dull the senses enough to make it unsafe to work with wild animals.

There really is no reason to drug a zoo animal other than for occasional medical treatments. Zoo animals often appear more lethargic and sleepy than person might expect because these animals are often understimulated --just plain bored. Thankfully, many zoos are now developing behavioral enrichment programs to combat this effect of captivity.

I agree with Gunther than drugging animals for performance is cruelty. However, it rarely if ever occurs in the modern circus.

Where do circus animals go when they retire?

When circus animals get older or sick or just don't seem to like circus work or the circus life, they often stay at the trainer's winter quarters all year. The typical winters quarters has good food, lots of room and things to do, and very good care by a professional staff. Some circus animals retire when they are still fairly young and so sometimes become involved in breeding programs.

There are also many good "retirement homes" for circus animals. For example, the National Tiger Sanctuary.

Related links

Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA) resources about performing animals

If you would like to offer me a link to a site that offers either a similar or an alternative viewpoint on any issue related to circus animals, send it to the same address as above.


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Kevin Patton is a former circus animal trainer and performer,
and is a member of the following organizations:
Circus Fans Association, Circus Historical Society, Friends of Circus World Museum.
Dr. Patton is now a biology professor and author of scientific texbooks.

Lion Tamers Guide to Teaching

This page updated on 23-sep-16