Animal Circuses – Animal Suffering


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

The animals may be confined for hours 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 animals with the facilities they need.

Yet circuses in Ireland have included such diverse animals as elephants, tigers, giraffes, rhinos, hippos, dogs, alligators, horses, snakes, camels and llamas.

Elephants in the wild are extremely social, living in large groups or herds and travel on average 25kms per day. In circus, they spend most of each day either chained by a front and a hind leg, or in a small fenced enclosure. 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, elephants in circuses spend almost their entire day barely able to move, let alone being able to perform natural behaviours such as foraging, bathing, walking and socialising. This may create stress and frustration and lead to abnormal behaviours such as rocking, swaying and nodding.

Big cats such as tigers and lions, 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 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 horses 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 when they are not performing.

Training is very secretive; animals undergo training behind closed doors. There have been cases where brutal training methods have come to light.

The nature of training circus animals is revealed by the tools of the trade. Whips may 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.

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 our 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 openly embarrassing an animal to prove that people are in power 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 elephants in captivity have been taken from the wild.


Injuries and Escapes

The very nature of a travelling circus means they always being on the move and 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, tigers and most recently an elephant in 2012.

The following all happened in circuses in Ireland and the UK:

* In 2012 a circus worker was seriously injured by an elephant just weeks after the same animal escaped

* In 2005 a circus worker was seriously injured by an elephant, and four children were bitten by a monkey

* In 2005 a dog being walked on a park was attacked by dogs who had been performing with a circus

* In 2002 an elephant injured a lady. A few months later the same elephant escaped and was finally caught in someone’s garden. In 1990 the owner of the same circus was almost killed by one of the elephants

* In 2001 a circus animal trainer was attacked by a tiger after tripping up in the enclosure

Even lions and tigers have escaped from circuses – for example four lions escaped from a circus in 1991 and attacked a passer by, and in 1995 a man had both arms ripped off by tigers in a circus cage.

It’s legal for a circus to beat an elephant with an iron bar

Between 1996 to 1998, investigators from the organisation Animal Defenders worked undercover in UK animal circuses. They secretly filmed animals being prodded and hit with all manner of weapons. The investigation culminated in convictions for cruelty of Mary Cawley, 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 who 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 broom handle. 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.

The future

Around the world, more circuses have now abandoned animal acts and have shows consisting entirely of human performers – acrobats, clowns, jugglers etc. All the fun, without the cruelty.human acts

Freedom for Animals encourages the public to only support these animal-free circuses.

It seems hard to believe that animal circuses are still touring Ireland today.


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