Friday, November 2, 2007

Animal Circuses: Fun for Whom?

Animal circuses have been entertaining the public for years, and conjure up images of humans and animals working together in a safe environment to amuse and astound children of all ages.

But circuses are no fun for the animals, who must endure fear, pain and psychological suffering for our pleasure.

Although the brutality of animal circuses has been hidden from the public's view for many years, a number of recent undercover investigations into some of North America's most popular circuses has revealed a dark yet pervasive reality of animal abuse, harsh training methods and poor animal welfare.

Animal Abuse

According to an elephant trainer in 2002: “If I get any defiance [from the elephants], I’ll beat the hell out of them. [The elephants] will disobey in public because they know I can’t hit them with a stick as much.”

Indeed, many circus animals have been beaten or abused in some way to make them perform. Steel rods, whips, bull hooks and electric prods, used to train and control the animals are considered 'tools of the trade'.

At a performance of the Tarzan Zerbini Circus in Lethbridge, Alberta in 2001, it was reported by the local newspaper that 80 patrons watched in horror as an elephant handler took three elephants back stage, lined them up in a row and started beating the middle one on the head with a club.

When interviewed, the owner of the circus explained that the witnesses "saw the wrong thing," that the handler was only gesturing to the elephant, not clubbing it, after the elephant had done something wrong. There was no investigation and no charges were laid.

Food and water deprivation, shackles, ropes and solitary confinement are also used by circus staff to make the animals perform or punish those who perform inadequately.

Cruel training methods and punishments have also been linked to human safety and is a major reason for accidents in elephant keeping. The use of physical punishment towards elephants is believed to build up 'resentment' in the animals, which may lash out at their handlers at some opportune moment.

As a former elephant trainer who testified before the USDA Investigative and Enforcement Services in July 2000 explains: "I can tell you that they live in confinement and they are beaten all the time when they didn't perform properly. That makes them dangerous and they want to get away."

Poor Animal Welfare

Wild animals in circuses also suffer from poor living conditions, prolonged confinement, isolation, insufficient stimulation and an inability to exercise natural behaviours. The stress of captivity can cause psychotic behaviours and aggression in some animals, while others become depressed and non-responsive.

For example, circus elephants can spend up to 95% of their lives in chains or tethers. Studies have found that confined elephants behave more aggressively towards humans and other animals than elephants that are able to move around freely. Crowded conditions and confinement, particularly amongst mammals, are also associated with adrenal hypertrophy and psychotic behaviour.

Circus lions and tigers are kept in beast wagons, small cages on wheels where the animals are forced to eat, sleep and defecate. These cages are designed for transport only and are inadequate as permanent housing since they offer no outlet for the animals’ instincts to explore, play, or hide away from the public when stressed. Still many performing cats spend the majority of their time on the road inside them.

While traveling from town to town, circus animals are kept in unheated or overheated vehicles, transport trailers and railroad boxcars with little or no ventilation for long periods of time.

On July 13, 2004, a two-year-old lion with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus died while traveling through the Mojave Desert in the U.S. in a poorly ventilated boxcar with no water. It is believed the lion died of heatstroke and dehydration.

Risks to Humans

Traveling acts that feature wild performing animals pose serious dangers to human health and safety as well. A significant number of people, including members of the public have been injured and killed by wild performing animals in traveling shows.

In 1999 a 23-year-old man was killed after being kicked in the head by a circus elephant in Timmins, Ontario. More recently, an elephant with the Shrine Circus trampled a trainer to death in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 2005. It is estimated that over 100 people have been killed by elephants worldwide since 1980.

Wild performing animals, such as elephants, pythons and non-human primates can also carry diseases harmful to humans, including tuberculosis, salmonellosis, hepatitis and the Ebola virus. Almost 90% of all macaque monkeys are infected with Herpesvirus simiae, or herpes B, a virus that is harmless to monkeys but often fatal to humans.

Circus Animals & the Law

Many circuses, including ones leased by the Shriners, have been cited in violation of a number of requirements for standard animal care by the United States Department of Agriculture and U.S. Humane Society.

These include failure to provide veterinary care, adequate shelter, nutritious food and clean water, as well as failure to handle animals in a manner that prevents trauma and harm. They have also been cited for regularly hiring inexperienced employees and failing to ensure public safety.

Unfortunately, circuses that neglect or abuse animals are rarely charged or punished and there are no federal laws specifically protecting performing animals in Canada. Only the province of Nova Scotia currently has standards for exhibiting circus animals.

Still, animal welfare is difficult to enforce since the circus is only in town for a day or two and local humane societies have neither the resources or appropriate training to deal with animal circuses or exotic species.

The Criminal Code of Canada, which hasn’t been seriously updated since 1892, does not address problems relating to the care, housing and training of performing animals. The Criminal Code is also punitive rather than preventative, and the very weak animal cruelty statutes are based on human misconduct to animals and not on the animals’ well being.

The End of Animal Circuses?

As more people become concerned about animal welfare, ticket sales at circuses with performing animals will continue to decline. On September 17, 1999, The Indianapolis News reported that “Attendance continues to dwindle when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to town.”

Two years later, on August 17, 2001, the Wichita-Eagle wrote that Ringling had failed to secure a date at the Kansas Coliseum because of concerns about its declining circus attendance. Other circuses are also experiencing low turnouts so it is not uncommon today to see half empty arenas and shortened tour schedules.

This change can be attributed to the growing belief that animals should not be exploited for human entertainment. In an editorial on April 5, 2005 by the Philadelphia Daily News: “The circus elephants are coming to town next week, bringing an outmoded and problematic form of entertainment to all Philadelphians. Here’s hoping that this is the last year such an antiquated spectacle is welcomed within our city limits.”

Non-animal, or ‘all-human’ circuses are becoming increasingly popular and are seen as a more humane way to entertain the public. They feature acrobats, daredevils, illusionists and other talented performers displaying amazing feats of skill, precision and teamwork, instead of forcing wild animals to live and behave unnaturally.

Circuses like the Canadian-based Cirque du Soleil, which combines brilliant choreography and provocative music with stunning acro-gymnastic performances and dynamic displays of co-ordination and strength prove that animals are not needed to put on an exciting show.

A number of municipalities across North America have banned or severely restricted performing animals in circuses, traveling shows and novelty acts and both the Lion’s Club International and Kiwanis International have recommended to their local chapters not to use wild animal acts as fundraisers.

Even Shrine Clubs have been re-evaluating their policies on animal circuses. In 1997, the New Brunswick Shriners announced they would no longer use exotic animals in their circuses citing the negative publicity over the treatment of circus animals as one of the factors.

A few years later the British Columbia Shriners went ‘animal-free’ and in 2002, the Shriners of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island announced that they would be looking into alternatives to animal circuses for their fundraising initiatives.

These and other Shrine Clubs across Canada and the U.S. continue to help their communities by using non-animal alternatives such as their Christmas Fantasy Show, which features magicians and clowns for the children.

This trend will continue as more people learn about the true nature of animal circuses. Entertainment doesn’t have to include animal exploitation.

How You Can Help

Every ticket purchased for the circus supports the suffering, exploitation, and in many cases, the abuse of wild performing animals. Your decision not to attend circuses that use animals may be the most effective thing you can do to help them.

You can also share your views with family, friends and your community. If the public puts enough pressure on animal circuses to go 'animal-free', the circuses will have to adapt or risk even further declines in attendance.

If you want to become more active, you can contact your nearest animal rights group to learn what initiatives are being taken in regards to animal circuses. Perhaps you can join them the next time they distribute leaflets while the circus is in town.

Writing letters to your local newspaper(s) before the circus comes to town is an excellent way of expressing your concerns to a large number of people. See Writing a Letter to the Editor for tips on letter-writing. While you're at it, you can contact your local politicians urging them to enact laws prohibiting animal circuses in your area.

You can raise the issue today with Premier Dalton McGuinty and Monte Kwinter, Minister of Community Safety. Let them know that the exploitation of wild performing animals is archaic and cruel, and that being in close contact with such animals puts families at unnecessary risk. Ask them to enact legislation to protect these animals from further suffering.

Dalton, McGuinty, Premier,
Legislative Building
Queen's Park,
M7A 1A1
Fax: (416) 325-3745

Monte Kwinter, Minister of Community Safety
25 Grosvenor Street
18th Floor
Toronto, ON
M7A 1Y6
Fax: (416) 325-6067

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