Animal Circuses, Animal Suffering

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In this circus factsheet we look at transport & life on the road, training, the performances themselves, escapes, how it is legal for a circus to beat an elephant with an iron bar. We ask whether this is a relic of the not so distant past and highlight some UK incidents.

Transport & Life on the Road

Touring circuses may cover thousands of miles a year, carrying animals from site to site in transporters and cages on the backs of lorries known as beast wagons. Moving location each week means they spend most of the year in temporary accommodation.

The animals may be confined for hours, even days, in their travelling cages, with their only respite being either limited time in an exercise cage, being rehearsed, or performing. It is impossible for a travelling menagerie to provide circus animals with the facilities they need.

Yet travelling circuses in the UK have recently included such diverse animals as lions, tigers, dogs, domestic cats, reptiles such as alligators and snakes, camels, llamas, parrots, ducks, budgerigars, horses and elephants. In Europe, you can find polar bears, rhinos and hippos.

In the wild, elephants are extremely social, living in large groups or herds and travel on average 25kms per day. In the circus, they spend most of each day chained by a front and a hind leg, standing on a wooden or metal board in a tent. The chains on their legs mean they can only shuffle a pace or two backwards or forwards. If they are lucky, they will occasionally have access to a grassed electric fenced enclosure, but this will depend on the circus site. Thus circus elephants spend almost their entire day barely able to move, let alone being able to perform natural behaviours such as foraging, bathing, travelling and socialising. This may create stress and frustration and lead to abnormal behaviours such as rocking, swaying and nodding.

Big cats, most commonly lions and tigers, live in beast wagons. Studies have shown that these animals spend most of the day in these small mobile cages. Some may be provided with "exercise" cages, but often these are only slightly larger than the beast wagon itself, and they are only likely to have access at certain times of day.

These are predators, designed to hunt. But their natural instincts and behaviours are frustrated by the circus. Consequently, lions and tigers may repeatedly pace backwards and forwards in their beastwagon.

It is not just the wild animals that are frustrated and severely confined.

Horses and ponies are gregarious animals - extremely social. After being unloaded from their horse boxes or transporters they are often confined in tents, separated from their companions by stalls, which do not allow socialising or mutual grooming. Often horse will be tethered or kept in tiny pens for the entire time they are not performing or rehearsing. If exercise enclosures are provided, these are generally very small - it is unlikely a horse would gallop or really exercise in one. Behavioural abnormalities have been observed in circus horses.

Although, performing dogs could be kept as pets, living with a presenter, they are often kept in cages on tour or tied up when they are not performing.

Often, animals are kept together in inappropriate groups - for example territorial lions and tigers share the same cages. Zebras and llamas, will form groups or herds in the wild, but will often be solitary, or just in pairs in the circus. Again, they tend to be penned or tethered, rather than given exercise enclosures.


Training is very secretive; animals undergo training behind closed doors. There have been cases where brutal training methods have come to light. The most recent, and perhaps most notorious, was that of Mary Chipperfield.

The nature of training circus animals is revealed by the tools of the trade. Whips are seen in the ring but the use of screws hidden in the base of walking sticks, spikes concealed in tasselled sticks and hotshots or electric shock devices has been documented.

Some ex animal trainers or keepers have spoken out, to expose the cruel methods used to break and train circus animals. In the book Elephant Tramp by George Lewis the story of a training routine for Sadie the elephant is told.

"Sadie just could not grasp what we were trying to show her. In frustration she attempted to run out of the ring. We brought her back and began to punish her for being so stupid. We stopped suddenly, and looked at each other, unable to speak. Sadie was crying like a human being. She lay there on her side, the tears streaming down her face and sobs racking her huge body."

Another ex circus employee related how a little brown bear was treated.

"She was a sweet little innocent brown bear who never hurt anyone... but sometimes she had trouble balancing on the high wire. She was then beaten with long metal rods until she was screaming and bloody. She became so neurotic that she would beat her head against her small cage. She finally died."

Domestic animals undergo the same questionable training methods and perform unnatural acts. Horses are trained to walk backwards on their hind legs with tight reins forcing the neck into a supposedly attractive, artificial position.


The animals in circuses are there purely for entertainment, and the routines have changed little since the nineteenth century. In circuses, the audience can still see beautiful majestic animals like elephants ridiculed by their trainers, or big cats reduced to cowardly looking creatures by the cracking whip of the "powerful" lion tamer.

Some circuses claim to be educational but there is no educational value in seeing such magnificent animals reduced to performing tricks. The idea of publicly humiliating an animal to prove that "Man" is capable of this kind of dominance is not fun. Children should be taught to respect animals - circuses teach the opposite.

Circuses also claim to be involved in conservation, yet no animals from circuses have ever been released to the wild. Far from the suggested aim of conservation, most circus elephants have been taken from the wild. African elephants calves are the product of culls (mass slaughters of elephant families) - the circus often says that they have saved them, giving the impression that their workers ran around dodging bullets to rescue them, when in fact they have merely paid a dealer. This buying of cull orphans often makes money for those involved in this slaughter.


Circuses are exempt from the Dangerous Wild Animal Act, and their very nature of always being on the move means there is always a risk of escape. It is relatively common for animals like camels, pigs, and goats to get loose. There have also been escapes by lions and tigers.

In Grimsby, four lions escaped and attacked a passer by (1991).

An elephant called Maureen escaped in a Liverpool suburb after almost killing her trainer. She was caught four hours later. CAPS has not been able to establish what happened to Maureen after this incident. She disappeared. (1990)

A circus camel escaped from a field in the New Forest, walked down a busy High St and entered a service station. Motorists had to swerve to avoid the animal.

It's Legal For a Circus to Beat an Elephant With an Iron Bar

From 1996 to 1998, the Animal Defenders undertook an extensive undercover study of UK animal circuses, with their Field Officers taking jobs with circuses. Video footage showed animals being prodded and hit with all manner of weapons. The investigation culminated in convictions for cruelty at Mary Chipperfield Promotions of Mary Cawley (nee Chipperfield), her husband Roger Cawley, and their elephant keeper Stephen Gills.

Gills was jailed for four months because of his sustained attacks on the elephants. Using iron bars and pitchforks he would sometimes rain down as many as 30 frenzied blows on the faces of the chained animals. Mary Cawley was convicted on twelve counts of cruelty to an infant chimpanzee called Trudy that she kicked and thrashed with a riding crop. Roger Cawley was convicted of one count of cruelty to a sick elephant called Flora. Cawley claimed he was exercising her because she was sick, but whipped her to make her go faster and faster. The Cawleys were fined but not banned from keeping animals.

But what was equally significant was what they weren't convicted of. This defines the level of brutality permitted in animal circuses.

Mary Cawley was charged with cruelty to a camel. To make her move to the training ring, the camel was hit with reins, kicked, had her tail twisted, and repeatedly hit with a broomhandle. In the ring camels were struck about the body and even the face. Cawley was found not guilty of cruelty on the grounds that making the animal perform tricks is legal, therefore it is legal to use the force necessary to meet this goal. The magistrate noted, "The camels were being trained in the ring. It's not for us to judge if that's right - it is legal."

Likewise, the day before the whipping he was convicted of, Roger Cawley moved the sick elephant Flora to the training ring. Animal Defenders' film shows that Flora, who had collapsed the previous day and had boils about her body was unwilling and stopped. Gills pulled her and Charles Chipperfield hit her across the back with a fibre glass rod. Then Cawley joined in using a metal bar. Holding this in both hands, he brought it behind his head to hit Flora's back hard several times. Flora's legs buckled a little under the multiple blows, then she moved on. Again, this was not deemed cruelty because they were trying to force her to do something.

It also worth noting how some of the circus world viewed the Cawley's actions. David Hibling, at the time artistic director for Zippo's Circus was a defence witness for Mary Cawley. He was cross examined by the prosecution about the three Animal Defenders' videos of assaults on the chimp Trudy. Did Hibling "See anything which would constitute cruelty?" Hibling replied unequivocally, "No". Asked, "Would you do what Mary Cawley did?" Hibling replied "Yes". "On the videos [relating to Mary and Roger Cawley, not Gills] did you see anything cruel?" Hibling again said "No". Fortunately, the magistrate did not share Hibling's views.

A Relic of the Not so Distant Past...

Despite repeated claims that they are traditional and part of our heritage, circuses in their current form, really only date from the 19th century.

The "father of the modern circus" is considered to be English born Phillip Astley who demonstrated equestrian and acrobatic skills in a ringed enclosure in London in the 18th century. This was the first time, that the now familiar circus ring was first seen in England. And, although the circus industry claims that wild animals have always been an integral part of the show, the first elephant was not seen in a circus until the 19th century.

Before animals were exhibited, travelling shows were likely to be exhibiting people with physical abnormalities, regarded at the time "freaks of nature". Phineas Taylor Barnum, a name synonymous with the circus world, was also associated with this practice. A reprehensible past, quite rightly consigned to history.

Performing animals can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Animals and people were slaughtered in their thousands in the arenas. Some animals were trained to do degrading tricks, designed to ridicule the animal, with human superiority over nature being an important element of the Roman culture. But the performing animals were little more than light relief for the massacres on show. Certainly, no one would wish to revive or preserve the torture and humiliation of the amphitheatres for the sake of tradition.

Little more than a hundred years ago, the travelling circus revived part of this humiliating spectacle. Today we see the lions cowed before their "tamers", and performing elephants and bears reduced to caricatures. The animal circus is an anachronistic relic of the past.

It seems hard to believe that we have entered this new millenium with animal circuses still touring.

UK Incidents

These incidents all involved UK based circuses or circus promoters.

Three circus elephants lived chained in a metal container on a ship for a 25,000 mile voyage. The journey took three months.

Picture 1: Spikes used by a circus to control elephants. The tassels conceal the spikes in the ring.

Picture 2: This hippo was photographed by CAPS whilst touring Ireland with an Italian Circus in 2000. Apart from being inappropriate to keep a hippo in an enclosure resembling a small car park, safety and containment of the animal are clearly minimal.

Picture 3: Even domestic cats find their way into circus acts.

Picture 4: Contrary to claims by circuses, there seems little evidence that animals enjoy their time in the ring.

Picture 5: These lions are in their permanent quarters, as you can see the facilities differ little to when they are on tour.

Related Topics

spikes [ 22.50 Kb ]hippo [ 20.77 Kb ]cirucs_kitten [ 17.33 Kb ]circus_pony [ 17.25 Kb ]circus_lion [ 25.93 Kb ]



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