Animal Law

The Cruelty of Circuses

Recently, I attended a protest against Ringling Bros. at the Barclays Center. Since then, I have volunteered to help compose a comment for the Animal Law Committee in support of Assembly bill A5407 in New York, which would “restrict the use of exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses and shows” and prohibit “the use of any wild or exotic animal that was traveling in a mobile housing facility thirty days before the circus or show.” Why do I support this bill? Because circuses are cruel! 

Training the animals is tantamount to abuse. Trainers commonly use baseball bats, electric prods, pitchforks, bullhooks, and other objects, to get the animal to do what the trainer wants.

“Ringling elephants spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat of the bullhook, or ankus—the menacing tool used to control elephants. They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity.” — Mother Jones, The Cruelest Show on Earth

Not only do elephants suffer (please keep in mind that every animal forced to perform in a circus is suffering!) from the physical abuse of performing, they also suffer harm to their psychological well-being.  According to G.A. Bradshaw in Elephants in Circuses: Analysis of Practice, Policy, and Future ,  elephants kept in close confinement experience aggression, depression, stereotypy, and infantacide. Suffering can also include “personality disorders, poor social skills, loss of impulse control, hyperarousal and unpredictable outbursts, and a high vulnerability to self-injury” and even  “dissociative or dissociative-like behaviors.” A captive elephant is confined in a 20′ x 20′ cubicle, and while traveling, can spend up to 100 hours in chains. A wild elephant travels up to 30 miles a day! But again, it is not just elephants who suffer in circuses. For example, a tiger in his or her natural environment may roam and hunt in an area that is 6 to 20 miles large. But a captive tiger in a circus is spending his or her life in a 12′ x 12′ x 10′ cage – or smaller.

Given the detrimental physical and mental effects of confinement and abusive training, is it surprising when the suffering animals make a break for it or lash out? When this happens, both humans and animals are affected: the escaped tiger from Cole Bros. Circus caused a car crash that ended in an almost $1 million settlement; the runaway zebra from Ringling was euthanized following the injuries to his hooves; the bolted elephant was eventually murdered by police.

Thankfully, various national bans (ranging from all wild animals, to specific species, to all animals) have been implemented in a large amount of countries, including Austria, China, Belgium, and Bolivia.  Despite animal bans, the circus industry may still thrive – if it wants to. For example, Pace University reports that in the UK, between 1996 and 2000, the number of animal circuses plunged from 22 to 11, while the number of animal-­ free circuses rose from 9 to 23. The rising popularity of animal-free circuses, such as Cirque de Soleil – whose annual review exceeds $810 million! –  demonstrates that it is unnecessary to continue to abuse and exploit animals for the sake of our human entertainment.

It is unfortunate that no states in the US have made efforts in banning the use of wild and exotic animals in circuses. Very few localities have even done so. New York, which is home to the popular and cruelty-free Big Apple Circus, will hopefully pass this much needed bill.

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