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Wild Animals in Entertainment

© FOUR PAWS | Fred Dott

Throughout the world thousands of wild animals suffer for human entertainment. This can be in zoos, aquariums, public exhibits, roadside attractions, marine mammal parks, interactive facilities, and in particular circuses where animals such as big cats, elephants, bears, and apes are taught from a young age that life is pain and confinement.


Stuck in inhospitable conditions, these animals are forced to adapt to abnormal surroundings and perform unnatural behavior. Solitary animals like tigers or bears may be penned up together while social animals like elephants are kept alone – chained up for hours on end – until they need to perform.  

For many people, lions, tigers, and elephants are big attractions at circuses. However, the keeping and transportation of these wild animals in circuses usually result in the saddest forms of captivity and cruelty. They spend most of their life in cages or tiny enclosures – and the show will go on as long as the audience keeps visiting and spending money that keeps these “big tops” in business.

Definition of wild animals

Lions, tigers, bears, and elephants are wild animals – sensitive species whose needs as mammals no circus can meet. Having never been domesticated, they are biologically distinct from pets and other domesticated animals. In contrast to domesticated species, these animals have either been taken from the wild or have been kept by humans for just a few generations. Although circus staff often claim otherwise, training and breeding do not alter the fact that they are wild animals. Taming an animal is not the same thing as domesticating it.

Confinement and poorly kept conditions

For most wild animals circuses fail to provide some of the most basic social, spatial, and health requirements. A travelling circus cannot afford to take the needs of their performing animals into consideration. The business constantly moves from location to location, animals in cages have to be transported and therefore need to take up as little space as possible. These cages also need to be assembled and disassembled as fast as possible, which results in the animals spending most of their time in transport wagons that are far too small, depriving them of any exercise or enrichment. This was seen in a worldwide study of traveling circus practices by Animal Defenders International (ADI), which found that:


  • Tigers and lions spend between 75% and 99% of their time in severely cramped cages on the backs of trailers.
  • Elephants spend 58% to 98% of their time chained by at least one leg, and generally, both a front and hind leg.


Circuses are also unable to look after the needs of animals that are sensitive to temperature. Very few have adequate, heated winter quarters capable of providing suitable conditions during bad weather to animals that are sensitive to the cold. And most circuses are on the road for the whole year, through harsh winters and excessive summer heat.


Without the room and opportunity for wild animals to live as they naturally would and exhibit their natural behaviors, monotony and boredom reign and their welfare and health are significantly impacted. This can be seen in the development of abnormal behaviors, such as a tiger endlessly pacing back and forth, and health issues like joint and hernia problems in elephants resulting from repeatedly assuming unnatural positions during a performance.

© FOUR PAWS | Fred Dott

Gruelling transport

Circuses may travel between venues up to 50 times a year, causing the animals’ extreme stress. Animals often have to spend hours cooped up in their wagons, not only during the trip itself, but also while the tents are taken down and put up again. FOUR PAWS investigated the transportation of elephants in Germany, and found that the time spent in the cramped wagons far exceeds the time actually spent travelling to the new location. Several scientific studies have specifically documented the strain circus animals experience during loading, transport, and unloading.

Questionable training

In the wild, no tiger would jump through a burning hoop and no elephant voluntarily does a handstand. These sorts of “stunts” are always the result of questionable and usually brutal methods of training based on domination and in the worst cases, violence. Performances are often claimed to represent “variety’’ or “natural activity’’ for the animals, but in fact the animals’ days are characterised by inactivity and lack of movement. Circus animals must often carry out unnatural artistic contortions in the ring. Most animals have to repeat the same performances for years on end, with no new training. They usually only spend between one and nine percent of the day in training or performances. This is not “variety,’’ nor do the performances have educational value, as animals are often made to look or act like humans, or are made fun of in the ring.


Eyewitnesses and undercover filming have shown trainers using electric shocks and bull hooks, which are heavy bars with a sharp hook, to punish and intimidate elephants into behaving, leaving elephant experts to conclude that the animals’ training is based on cruelty, pain, and the use of force. The use of abusive “training” tactics extends to other wild animals as well.

© FOUR PAWS | Fred Dott

Lack of specialist knowledge and funds

Most circuses cannot afford appropriate facilities, specialist veterinary care, or a balanced diet for their animals, let alone proper care for animals that are old, sick, or unfit to travel. Few workers and trainers are formally qualified for the job, and they receive no further training in the way that zookeepers do. This means that circuses are rarely aware of up-to-date scientific developments in the field of animal husbandry.

Safety concerns

Circuses bring dangerous wild animals into close proximity of people using inadequate barriers, such as free-standing fences, electric agricultural fences, or simply on a leash in public. Many circuses even allow children to get close to the animals.


The need to remain constantly mobile is at odds with the actual requirements for the size and security of cages, and circuses can see fatal accidents occur any time humans come into contact with animals. There have been several incidents of circus animals escaping or becoming uncontrollable, resulting in injury to circus visitors and staff, traffic issues, costly police operations, and typically the death of the animals. In the end, wild animals pose a real threat to public safety precisely because they are wild and therefore unpredictable, and no amount of training can eliminate this danger.

No education value or species protection

Circuses will often claim that by keeping and showing wild animals they are fulfilling an educational role, or even helping protect the species. However, presenting animals in a circus ring, and the conditions off-stage, are far removed from this claim. Children learn nothing about the animals’ natural behaviour, about animal welfare, or about the threats to habitats. Instead, for commercial entertainment, animals are depicted as caricatures of their fellows living in the wild. This also has nothing to do with protecting endangered species in their original habitats. Circuses make no contribution to education or the protection of species. They also take no part in projects to release animals into the wild. Some studies have demonstrated that the use of tigers or chimpanzees in the entertainment industry even leads the public to believe that these species are less endangered than they actually are.

An end without mercy

At the end of their long ordeal of suffering, animals that are too old for the circus can seldom hope for a peaceful end or “sanctuary”. Almost no circus can afford that. And so the animals are either put down, or sold and thereby delivered to an unknown fate.


As of May 2017, there were 19 circuses in the U.S. with performing animals. Among them they have between 200-300 wild animals, which includes big cats, bears, elephants, camels, etc. For elephants specifically, there are around 50 still performing in US circuses.

FOUR PAWS demands...

  • a ban on wild animals in circuses
  • a ban on the breeding and replacement of circus animals in the short term
  • that domesticated animals should only be permitted in circuses if appropriate keeping conditions can be guaranteed. Only an approved list of specified animals should be allowed.
  • the confiscation and adequate re-housing of animals subjected to bad keeping conditions.

What you can do

  • Do not visit circuses that include animal acts.
  • Explain to your children why animals in circuses suffer.
  • Inform the local media of the animal welfare issues and problems, when a circus with animal performances is visiting your town.
  • Inform the local humane society, FOUR PAWS, or ZooCheck if you discover a circus with inappropriate keeping conditions.