Classroom Resources

Circus Animals

What to do when the circus comes to town

The image of a circus often conjures up warm memories from our youth as we recall the good times we had caught up in the excitement of everything going on – the ringmaster, the acrobats, the lion tamer with his whip…

But wait, is there something wrong with this picture? It seems that some people are determined to take away the fun of the circus by protesting and even wanting to ban the use of animals. Why the fuss? If circuses were good enough for us when we were kids, shouldn’t they be okay for our children and students?

As a society we are becoming more enlightened about the ways that animals are treated; just as circuses no longer include “freak shows”, many circuses have realized that animals need not – and should not – be included. Let’s look at some of the concerns about animals in circuses.

Travelling Shows

Most people associate travel with temporary minor discomfort, which they tolerate since they know the journey will lead to a vacation or the comforts of home. Circus animals, however, spend the majority of their time travelling in cramped cages and have no permanent home. Circuses are by nature constantly on the move. Furthermore, when they make a stop, the animals are kept in their cages or chained except when they “perform” or are subjected to often-painful forms of “training.”

Many wild animals are territorial by nature; they need to have an area of their own. In a circus, animals have no opportunity to build a home in a habitat that resembles their natural environment, and generally have no place to go for rest when they need it. Their opportunities for exercise and exhibiting their natural behaviours are extremely limited.

Laws for the transportation of animals are generally meant to protect animals who are moved on rare occasions – for example, to a veterinarian or a slaughterhouse. They were not intended for animals who are constantly being shuttled from one location to another. The fatigue and cramped spaces that restrict the animals’ movements inevitably cause a great deal of stress on the animals.

Isn’t There a Law?

The fact that circuses are rarely prosecuted is often given as evidence that circuses are fine for animals. In fact, it’s very difficult to prosecute a circus since they move around so quickly. No single authority is able to monitor the health of the animals over an extended period of time, and investigations are unable to determine if the long-term care of the animals is adequate.

When the Newfoundland SPCA charged the George Carden Circus with causing five bears undue privation and neglect, it was only after a lengthy investigation where they consulted SPCAs across the country. In May 2001 the ringmaster and animal trainer each pled guilty to the charges and were fined the maximum under Newfoundland law: $200. The Judge expressed the view that the prescribed maximum was woefully inadequate, and said he hoped the real deterrent would be that parents would not bring their children to such exhibitions.

Triumph of Man over Beast

Circuses with animals are quickly becoming anachronistic. “Taming” lions and forcing bears to dance on skates is meant to show mankind’s mastery over nature. This outdated thinking has been replaced in our schools by a respect for nature that encourages living in harmony with our environment. Even zoos have generally made a concerted effort to duplicate natural conditions for the animals.

Modern circuses that don’t use animals have been tremendously successful. These include Canada’s world-famous Cirque du Soleil and the Mexican International Circus, as well as many others. These groups have redefined the concept of circus in such a way as to provide the thrills and excitement of a circus without causing cruelty to animals.

Educational Experience?

While some claim that circuses offer an educational opportunity to see wild animals up close, it’s doubtful that anything of value can be learned by watching bears riding bicycles, elephants in tutus or chimpanzees dressed up as rag dolls. Audiences observe the outer forms of animals at a circus, but behaviour patterns, social interactions, intelligence, hunting instinct, maternal care giving, food gathering and movement patterns, and all the facets of animal behaviour that have taken tens of thousands of years to evolve in each species are absent. Removed from their natural ecosystems and social environments, these animals are required to perform actions and live in conditions which are abnormal, unnatural and at times dangerous.

Other Considerations

Often there is not a lot known about any particular circus. In fact, often a circus simply brings together animals and performers from a variety of places for a tour, then disbands and re-forms for the next tour.

Training methods are dubious at best. Some animal activist groups have gone undercover and taken video footage of animals being beaten into submission. While it may not be fair to say that all circus training is brutal, it is safe to say that procedures to get animals to do such unnatural acts as riding on roller skates would need to be extreme.

If you still are intent on going to a circus, we hope you’ll at least go with a critical eye. Watch for how the animals are treated and ask questions about their training and transportation.


Societal values are shifting and exotic animals performing solely for entertainment is declining. The Ringling Brothers Circus dropped its curtain for good in 2017 after 147 years in business and the Royal Canadian Family Circus has decided to remove all exotic and endangered species from its shows. Domestic animals such as horses may be filling in some of the gaps and there is still a potential for animal welfare issues to occur. Domestic animals still require a standard of care, housing, and transport appropriate to their species and protection from activities, including training, that may cause distress or otherwise pose a significant risk to their safety.

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