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The Circus: An Animal's Life Behind the Red Curtain

Updated on July 22, 2013

What do we picture when we think of the circus? Beautiful tents with bright colors, hilarious clowns (maybe not so hilarious for some), the amazing acrobats and trapeze stunts, and of course to make the experience complete there has to be the exotic animals and the 'wonderful' tricks they all perform. This article is for you so see the not-so-wonderful side of the circus: how exactly do the animals learn these fantastic tricks, how they obtain their animals, and the overall life of a typical animal in the circus.

Phillip Astley and John Bill Rickett
Phillip Astley and John Bill Rickett

History of the Circus

The very first circus that was brought to America in 1793 by Englishman John Bill Ricketts, right after the country was founded. The circus back in that time was something absolutely fantastical! An event that was truly spectacular and a definitely a 'must-see'. Back in those days, the circus provided people with a first look at new and strange inventions and contraptions, entertainment and danger, bizarre looking clowns, exotic animals with their exotic trainers from distant lands.

Ricketts incorporated several of his acts from Phillip Ashley who started the first real circus in England. It was Ashley who created the idea of a round stage, and the universal circus music. Ricketts stunts involved several famous daredevil aerobatics, riding on dangerous animals, and he was soon known as the Master-Rider with stunts such as the Flying Mercury and Egyptian Pyramids that soon became his trademark.
Yet in 1979 Ricketts fell into financial ruin and his performing days came to an end; but not without leaving a lasting impression on American audiences everywhere. Modern-day circus's such as Cirque de Soleil still perform several of Ricketts acts today.

'Barack' a baby elephant born at Ringling Bros. Circus. This is the first few weeks of training.
'Barack' a baby elephant born at Ringling Bros. Circus. This is the first few weeks of training.

Circus Animals

The tricks the animals are able to perform at the circus are all amazing, but amazing or not, it is unnatural and cruel. It is not natural for an elephant to sit on a chair, stand on their head, crawl, twirl, or mount on top of each other. Yet these are some of the most common tricks performed at several circuses. David Hancock, former director of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, states "when circuses portray animals as freaks and curiosities, devoid of context or dignity, circuses are perpetuating outdated attitudes. Wild animals in the circus are reduced to mere caricatures of their kind, exhibited just for financial gain. In this way, they corrupt our children, promoting the notion that exploitation and degradation is acceptable, even brave or funny."

Here is an inside look at exactly how animal handlers and trainers teach the animals how to perform these acts using tools such as whips, sticks, electric prods and bull-hooks.

The most common tool used in teaching animal's tricks is the ankus, or bull-hook, which is a long rod, and in design is meant to cause severe pain. At first glance an elephant's skin may look very tough, but in truth it is as sensitive as a humans. The bull-hook is used to create fear and knowledge of pain if the animal refuses to cooperate, so that they will perform the tricks accurately in front of the audience when the hook cannot be used. This tool bruises, punctures and tears at the animal's skin very easily and very often. Former employees of the famous Barnum and Bailey's Circus openly claim that they always have bags of topsoil handy so they can cover the animal's wounds and cuts before show time. The bull-hook is used even on the baby elephants when they first arrive, as you can see above.

Ringing Bros. may state that "our training methods are based on continual interaction with our animals, touch and words of praise and food rewards," when in reality it is nothing of the sort. Video footage taken between 2001 and 2006 shows animal aggressively hooked, and elephants that had gone mad and are still forced to perform and travel to different venues. Several employees of Ringling Bros. either quit or were fired from the circus due to their noncompliance with the training methods and describe regular beatings and abuse towards elephants, horses, camels and zebras.

Another false claim by Ringling Bros. is their attempt to save endangered Asian elephants by placing them in their circus, but records show that in 1990, of the approximately 66 elephants in their care, 57 were captured from the wild and at least 24 elephants have died since 1992. The health and behavioral problems of their elephant's show that it would be impossible to rehabilitate them and get them ready to be released back into the wild; they would not be able to survive. Ringling has also been unsuccessful at breeding more elephants than it has imported and captured for their traveling show, and as a result their elephants are dying at a faster rate than they are breeding.

Beside the routine cruelty methods, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports show that Ringling Bros. have been given several citations that greatly impact animal welfare. One example is in 2003 where they were fined three times for not providing adequate veterinary care to a disabled elephant, an elephant with a large swelling on its leg, and a camel with several bloody wounds.
In 2006, the circus troupe was cited again for causing physical harm, behavioral stress, trauma, improper handling of dangerous creatures, improper enclosure, and discomfort to two baby elephants who suffered abrasions and deep cuts when they ran amok in an arena in Puerto Rico. Ringling Bros. was also forced to pay a $20,000 fine towards the USDA for charges for failing to provide veterinary care to a sick baby elephant that shortly died after he was forced to perform.

Yet Ringling Bros. obstinately states "our staff are experts in their field," when in actuality they continue to hire inexperienced people, some straight from homeless shelters and allow them to work around animals. Several of their employees have been known to have serious criminal backgrounds such as child predators, sex offenders, and violent criminals.

One example is Thomas Allen Riccio that worked as a clown, 'Spanky', for Ringling Bros. was charged with 10 accounts of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor on May 25th, 2004. Officials reported finding 2,000 pictures on Riccio's computer, which was kept in his room on the circus train, containing girls as young as five-years old engaging in sexual activities with adults. The complete list of citations and other problems several circuses have committed can be viewed here.

The living conditions for circus animals are no better. When not chained down, most elephants are reported to be confined in barns and small outdoor padlocks. Their facility in Williston, Florida, where it is referred to as their 'animal retirement home,' has several elephants exposed or infected with Tuberculosis (TB). Two elephants at their breeding center in September of 2006 were also tested positive for TB and three more were pulled off the road due to their exposure to the diseased elephants.

To end this article properly, I've submitted a video showing a few baby elephants born at Barnum and Bailey's circus so you may see the neglect for yourself. Yes, it IS a P.E.T.A. video, but don't let the name scare you; it is not as notoriously graphic as their other footage of animal cruelty. Narrated by actress Kathy Najimi (Rat Race,Wedding Planner); she gives a detailed description of baby elephants raised in a typical circuses and how they were meant to live naturally in the wild.

Animal Friendly Circuses!

7 Fingers

Tel.: 514-521-4477
Web: Bindlestiff Family Cirkus
P.O. Box 1917
New York, NY 10009
Tel.: 212-726-1935

Circus Millennia
3700 S. Four Mile Run
Arlington, VA 22206
Tel.: 703-683-5040

Circus of the Kids
926 Waverly Rd.
Tallahassee, FL 32312
Tel.: 917-208-6341

Cirque du Soleil
8400 Second Ave.
Montreal, Québec Canada
Tel.: 514-722-2324

Cirque Éloize
4230 rue Hogan
Montréal, Québec
H2H 2N3
Tel.: 514-596-3838

Cirque Éos
P.O. Box 53017
Succursale Canardière, Québec G1K 5K3
Tel.: 418-661-1961

Cirque Plume
37 rue Battant
Besancon 25000
Tel.: 33-3-81-81-38-80

Cirque San Jose
634 N. Eighth St. San Jose, CA 94112
Tel.: 408-929-0678

Fern Street Circus
P.O. Box 621004
San Diego, CA 92162
Tel.: 619-235-9756

Flying High Circus
FSU Circus
Tallahassee, FL 32306-3064
Tel.: 850-644-4874

Gregangelo & Velocity Circus Troupe
225 San Leandro Way
San Francisco, CA 94127
Tel.: 415-242-4196

Hiccup Circus
Hawaii’s Volcano Circus
Educational Nonprofit Organizations
RR 2, Box 4524
Pahoa, Hawaii, 96778 USA
Tel./Fax: 808-965-8756

Imperial Circus of China
c/o Management One, LLC
7380 Sand Lake Rd., Ste. 350
Orlando, FL 32819
Tel.: 321-281-4000

Lazer Vaudeville
621 S.W. First Ave.
Ocala, FL 34474

Mexican International Circus
C/o Xentel DM
609 14th St. N.W., Ste. 300
Calgary, Alberta T2N 2A1

Neil Goldberg’s Cirque
Cirque Productions
Variety Arts Management
3803 N. 29th Ave.
Hollywood, FL 33020
Tel.: 954-922-0888

New Pickle Circus
755 Frederick St.
San Francisco, CA 94117
Tel.: 415-759-8123

New Shanghai Circus
P.O. Box 2205
Branson, MO 65615
Tel.: 417-335-2000

Russian American Kids Circus
The Brad Simon Organization, Inc.
122 E. 57th St.
New York, NY 10022
Tel.: 212-980-5920, ext. 12

Swamp Circus Theatre
19 Wansfell Rd.
South Yorkshire
S4 8BE
Tel.: 44-0-114-256-0962


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    • profile image


      2 months ago

      its really sad watching the people smacking the elephant. it cruelty to animals..Thank you for your comment


      Maryland Avenue,city,Pinellas,Florida,USA




    • aisha1257 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      I know. I don't know how the workers can be so cruel to the animals and not feel SOME kind of empathy. Hopefully more people will wise up to the regular Circus training and practices, and hopefully a lot of them will go out of business forever. Cross your fingers everyone!! :D

      Thank you for your comment fizajashley!! :)

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      its really sad watching the people smacking the elephant. it cruelty to animals. how dare you?

    • aisha1257 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thanks !! :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This article is full of facts thanx soooo much for the info. AND to all those circuses that use animals, wtf and SAME ON YOU

    • aisha1257 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Erthfriend- Thanks for commenting! Sorry for the late reply, haven't been on here in awhile. You are so right, a lot of people are so misinformed. Thanks for your input, have an awesome day!

      Micky- Too true Mick, and God bless you as well. Thanks!

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      8 years ago

      Thank you Dear! Animals need our love and supervision but never cruelty. Same as people! There is no place for cruelty. God bless!

    • erthfrend profile image


      8 years ago from Florida

      Your article was filled with so many facts that are unfortunately very true. I feel the same way as you regarding the animal circuses. Thank you so much for standing up for the animals!!! Too many people do not know what the animals have to go through behind the scenes. Thank you again!


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