Wild Animals Under the Circus Big Top: Amusement or Abusement?

Would tented lions, tigers, and elephants really label the circus 'the greatest show on Earth'?

Three inmates of the greatest show on Earth. (Photo: Don Emmert)

On July 16, 1999, Benjamin, a four-year-old baby elephant was supposed to be standing still. Instead, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus pachyderm made his way anxiously to an open pond during a stopover through Texas. 

For those wanting to patron an ethical animal circus, the task is almost an impossible feat.

Forcibly birthed from his mother more than eleven months premature, and kept from her while trainers inorganically raised him, Benjamin had not yet been taught the necessary skills to swim. He was frightened and sore after a beating with a bullhook, and was attempting to escape his angry handler. Poked and prodded again, Benjamin tumbled into the pond, flailing about in distress. A Ringling handler had deemed Benjamin’s typical juvenile behavior as naughty and was carrying out a punishment.

Unable to swim and too heavy to be rescued, baby Benjamin drowned in the pond, making him one of  25 captive animals to die between July 1999 and July 2011 in the care of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The Cruelest Show on Earth?

The modern concept of a circus has existed since the late 18th century, but it wasn’t until the early part of the 19th century that British circus owners Philip Astley and Andrew featured lions, elephants and bears in their menagerie variety shows. After Englishman John Bill Ricketts brought the circus to America, the industry was revolutionized by businessmen and scam artist P.T. Barnum, who later founded the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: the largest and first to transport its animals exhaustedly by train. In 1919, Barnum merged with Feld Entertainment, and today, Ringling Bros. is worth an approximate $300 million.

MORE: Video Shock: Ringling Bros. Trainer Hits Elephant

It's long been the dogma of Ringling Bros. that their circus "promotes human to animal interaction"—that their work helped increase public awareness of the need to protect animals. Ringling has steadfastly alleged that they always meet the rules and regulations for zoos and circuses for animal welfare.

But after a 2009 investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and PETA, USDA Inspection Reports indicated numerous issues of non-compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, including poor housing and sanitation, physical harm, neglect, and behavioral stress to animals.

Reports indicated that Ringling failed to properly handle animals in their captivity and had neglected to provide adequate veterinary care.

In 2004, a two-year-old lion died from heatstroke aboard a Ringling Bros. circus train while an eight-month-old Ringling elephant was euthanized when he suffered fractures to his legs after falling from a circus pedestal.

Cited in Inspection Reports from 2009 were more than five instances of cruelty toward elephants, including one with medically neglected swelling and trauma to her leg. Reports from that same year indicated the endangerment of tigers and lions confined to poorly ventilated boxcars and trauma to at least one camel.

Building upon the USDA’s case were photographs released in 2009 by retired Ringling trainer Sam Haddock, revealing violent training methods used on baby elephants, including binding them with ropes, at Ringling’s Polk City, Florida, training center. According to Haddock, whose statements were notarized, it was common for elephants to scream, cry, and struggle as they were trained this way.

Haddock’s photos also revealed an extensive use of the bullhook, a sharpened rod used to beat circus elephants and occasionally other animals should they give a perfunctory performance.

A full list of circus inspections and violations, including those from Bentley Bros. Circus, Carson and Barnes Circus and Walker Bros. Circus can be found here, courtesy of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

For those wanting to patron an ethical animal circus, the task is almost an impossible feat.

Circus companies are often intertwined and typically share both professional and personal ties, even internationally. The U.S. Department of Agriculture noted in its 2009 report that Ringling Bros. had been leasing at least one elephant act from Carson & Barnes, who were also cited for violations to animal care and welfare. A PETA undercover investigation discovered that Carson & Barnes’ animal care director, Tim Frisco, had ordered his staff to beat and shock elephants with bullhooks in order to train and intimidate them. Video footage published in 2005 shows Frisco instructing others to beat elephants “until they scream in pain.” The footage, which is extremely graphic, can be found here.

Elephants and other wild animals kept captive for performance in the circus suffer tremendously in the hands of trainers and circus operators, and in the words of Ringling founder P.T. Barnum, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Countries like Greece have legally recognized the cruelty of the circus, banning live animal circuses from operating anywhere in the country. In March 2012, U.K. Animal Welfare Minister Lord Taylor announced plans to ban wild animals from travelling circuses “at the earliest opportunity,” calling them “outdated.”

You can help end this abuse by never visiting a circus that uses captive animals, and by instead choosing animal-friendly entertainment void of wild animal performances.

Getting involved with local and national animal rights organizations, like PETA, Mercy for Animals, The Humane Society, and Animals Australia helps to sizably mediate the cruelties of keeping animals in circus and amusement park captivity.

Is the circus the cruelest show on Earth? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Related Stories on TakePart:

• Circus Elephants Break for Freedom

• Baby Elephant Loves His Human Mom

• Guns Blazing: Poachers Moving From Animals to Humans

Elissa Sursara is an Australian environmental conservationist, filmmaker and wildlife expert working on behalf of endangered species, threatened habitats and animals in crisis. She is a celebrity ambassador for the WWF, Earth Hour and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. @ElissaSursara

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