The Most Shocking Show on Earth

A/N: I know this isn’t exactly following what I usually post, and that it’s just an essay I wrote for a class. But being a vegan, I’m already very big on animal rights. And the more research I conducted for this essay, the angrier and more passionate I became. To give you an idea of how passionate I now am about animals in the circus industry, I now hope to protest in March when my school hosts the circus. Like I want to be one of “those people” outside of the tent, holding a sign and peacefully protesting. Education leads to awareness and awareness leads to change. So why not be a part of education?

            The Most Shocking Show on Earth

            Speciesism is prevalent in the United States in multiple different aspects, from food production to clothing production to breeding. However, one of the most ironic forms of speciesism is that of the circus: kids dream of running away to and working at the circus, while the animals held captive there can only dream of escaping to their natural habitat, one undisturbed by abusive, greedy humans. This irony is partially built on the belief that the animals performing at the circus are not mistreated; rather, they are loved, cared for, and may even hold a special bond with their trainer. It even blinds us from the common sense that wild animals, such as elephants and tigers, simply don’t belong in captivity, and it certainly isn’t natural to be performing tricks for any reason at all; it goes against nature. Unfortunately, this horribly harmful belief could not be further from the truth, and we as a society are finally on our way to discovering the Most Shocking Show on Earth.

Elephants, perhaps the most well known part of a circus, are one specific example of the mistreatment going on at circuses. They “can be shackled for 12 to 23 hours per day when not performing, in areas from just 7 to 12 metres…only move as far as the chain would let them, just 1 to 2 metres” (Coghlan). This is a drastic comparison to the 50 kilometers elephants in the wild cover in just a day’s time (Coghlan). And the training for elephants starts early, at 18-22 months. The babies are stolen from their mothers, who are forcibly kept back from trying to rescue them, and anchored to each other with ropes fastened around their necks (Good). Thus begins the six-month breaking period, where the babies are forced to stand still for 23 hours a day (Good). These wild creatures are deprived of everything: their mother, their movement, their spirit, their freedom, and even the most basic ability to sit. By the end of breaking, even the willingness to fight back has been stolen from them.

While positive reinforcement tends to work for circus animals, time restraints and the ever-standing phrase, “The Show Must Go On” leads to trainers using other, more “convenient” methods. For example, the bullhook: “The Bullhook (also called a guide, ankus, or elephants hook) is a device routinely used by elephant trainers and handlers to control captive elephant…it is a two-and-a-half to three-foot long rod made of wood, fiberglass, Lexan, or nylon, with a metal hook and a metal point…on the end” (Smith). Its intended use is to guide the elephant into the correct position or reinforce a command. However, the elephant-husbandry manual also states that the “shaft of the guide may be used as punishment after the elephant acts in an inappropriate or aggressive manner” (Smith). Furthermore, an elephant’s skin thickness “‘ranges from one inch across the back and hindquarters to paper-thin around the mouth and eyes, inside the ears, and at the anus’, and it is so delicate that an elephant can purportedly feel the pain of an inserted bite” (Smith). Therefore, this “guiding tool” is already harmful; and can we for just a moment, consider that trainers can and do use to their advantage, the fact that it is a fear-inducing tool? The elephant will do everything it can to avoid being poked and prodded by the bullhook, and if the handler ever uses it as punishment, it will forever be the connection in the elephant’s mind. This assumption is an unfortunate truth, when considering the countless USDA investigations of circuses like Ringling and Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. for abusive use of a bullhook (Smith). One undercover PETA investigation of Carson and Barnes Circus revealed the animal care director, Tim Frisco, instructing his trainers to “beat the elephants with a bullhook as hard as they could and to sink the sharp metal bullhook into the animals’ flesh and twist it until they screamed in pain”. As if that isn’t bad enough, a handler was also taped using a blowtorch to remove elephants’ hair (Nelson). Tigers are also beaten into submission at the circus. Naturally afraid of fire, tigers would rather jump through hoops than face the punishment of their handler (Healy). Training sessions aren’t monitored, so trainers can also easily get away with routinely abusing tigers (Healy). With all of this abuse occurring, how on earth can there be the formation of loving bonds between elephant and trainer?

When one takes a step back and looks at the ethics of the circus, they’ll see that there is absolutely no ethics or morals. Wild animals belong in the wild, not a tiny cage for the majority of their life, and circus animals face a variety of problems, from injuries, to psychological trauma, to stress and anxiety, to health problems. These large, active animals are kept in tiny, barren cages where they have just enough room to stand and turn around. Elephants are kept in leg shackles that only allow them to life one foot off the ground at a time (Admin). The temperatures in boxcars leave the animals in a misery so great that sometimes they fall dead; in one instance, a lion named Clyde died in the Ringling Bros. boxcar as the train crossed the Mojave Desert in temperatures above 100 degrees (Admin). Another horrific incident was at the Suarez Bros. Circus, where polar bears were reported to be in Puerto Rico in hot, humid cages that lacked air-conditioning or a regular chance to swim (Admin). Fortunately, U.S. officials ordered that the bears be sent to a more suitable climate before their certain death could occur (Admin). It seems that all the basic facts we know about animals and their natural climate, are thrown out the window, because all that truly maters is if they are exotic and good for entertainment.

Tigers are another example of being kept in unnatural environments far away from their ordinary home. These magnificent beasts are naturally semi-nocturnal, solitary animals. In the circus, they are forced to perform during the day and live in cages with other tigers, which often can lead to fights and injuries (Healy). Tigers, like elephants, are taken away from their mother as babies, and this one action alone can lead to emotional pain for both mother and cub (Healy). Unfortunately, our love for exotic animals outweighs our consideration and concern for these animals being forced to suffer in environments that they aren’t meant to handle.

The stress of the circus is sometimes too much for the animals to handle, and this has been witnessed in elephants in different ways. Behaviors like “infanticide, infant neglect, and poor infant-mother bonding…associated with the experience of early childhood and maternal trauma in many species. Emotional instability, aggression, and intentional attacks on other elephants…personnel and the public are consistent with changes in normal brain development…conditions of severe stress particularly in the absence of normal rearing, supportive social structures (that is, a stable natal herd), and environments” (Bradshaw, 18). However, a study of 1,500 observed elephant births in the wild in Amboseli reported no cases of infanticides or calf rejections (Bradshaw, 18). This makes sense, of course. Circus elephants are kept in unnatural, confined environments. They aren’t with their herd, and in many cases, they associate their handlers with violence, and fear for their life. Is it not understandable that suddenly, in the middle of a show, an elephant can’t take it anymore and riots? The abuse, the confinement, the neglect, the lack of compassion from its handlers, it is all too much. Humans understand why a dog may be unfriendly or mean after suffering from abuse by a previous owner; the same understanding should be applied to circus animals rampaging.

Unnatural behaviors aren’t the only result of being a circus animal; injuries are often a major part of one’s life. Elephants are chained on hard surfaces, which makes them “prone to arthritis, infection, and psychological stress, and, ultimately, can lead to a premature death” (“Chaining, Abuse, Rampant Tuberculosis, And Deceptive Conservation Claims, 2”). Because they are so deprived, elephants often “engage in stereotypic behavior, such as swaying back and fourth, sometimes repeatedly shifting their weight from one foot to another—all well-recognized signs of suffering” (“Chaining, Abuse, Rampant Tuberculosis, and Deceptive Conservation Claims, 2”). Unfortunately, to the untrained eye, these are not signs of suffering, but simply signs of being an elephant; most people are unaware that an elephant that is swaying back and fourth is actually in pain. Of course, the same people are also unaware that these elephants are also chained for ‘“upwards of 16 out of 24 hours on hard unyielding, non(-)interactive surfaces…chaining only increases the effects of the confinement’”. They also don’t know about the large amount of urine and waste elephants gather in just a 24-hour period; an amount that is eventually released, and the elephants are forced to stay there, which no doubt leads to infection; or the foot problems and musculoskeletal disorders elephants develop due to lack of exercise, standing on hard surfaces for a long period of time, and the contamination that results from standing in their own excreta (“Chaining, Abuse, Rampant Tuberculosis, and Deceptive Conservation Claims”, 4). There is so much the public doesn’t know about, and just like how many would instantly want to give up meat if they saw the true horror of factory farms, the majority of the public that still goes to the circuses would stop going if they knew the truth of what it takes for these animals to perform.

The public would like to think that when an animal is no longer able to perform in the circus, he or she is sent to the zoo to live the rest of their life in peace. In many instances, however, this isn’t the case. Rather, the circuses sell their animals to “canned hunt” facilities. These facilities offer the “chance of a lifetime”: for unlicensed patrons to kill a “tame former zoo or circus animal at close range, ‘all from the safety and comfort of a tree stand or an off-road vehicle”’ (Niedrich). And this is a guarantee; patrons will not go home empty-handed (Ireland, 226). These animals, who depend on humans now for survival, are easy targets at feeding stations; furthermore, they are not afraid of the humans about to shoot them, and even if they would run, there is nowhere to go (Niedrich). There are up to 2,000 facilities in 25 states, with the game ranging from $400 deer to $20,000 lions (Ireland, 225). The area for the animals ranges from 16,000 acres to 100 acres, but canned hunt participants will argue, “that true canned hunts are only those where the animal is shot while staked or caged, or shot at the moment of release (Ireland, 226). However, it really doesn’t matter how these animals are shot because in the end, someone has entered one of these horrifying places, leaving all compassion and ethics back at the car; in the end, an animal, whether it is endangered or not, has been murdered for no reason more than bragging rights.

Some legislation has been put forth to protect the wild animals. The ESA offers protection for endangered or threatened species, but there are no laws preventing the private ownership of exotic animals, which can, in turn, lead to the birth of a yet another canned hunt facility (Ireland, 229). The Captive Exotic Animal Protection Act prohibits transporting or possessing in interstate or foreign commerce a confined exotic animal ‘“for the purposes of allowing the killing or injuring of that animal for entertainment or the collection of a trophy”’ (Ireland, 230). Furthermore, the CEAPA does not address animals who are able to roam and forage for food, nor does it impact operations larger than 1000 acres (Ireland, 230). Regardless of the legislation that has been successfully passed, it absolutely sickening; canned hunt facilities are the opposite of ethical, and they beg the question: why are we allowing it? Where is our moral compass leading us away from such unethical practices? There is very little concern for the species, and whether or not it is endangered, but there is absolutely no concern for the creatures trapped in these areas, prone to the spread of diseases such as tuberculosis, chronic wasting disease, and brucellosis (Ireland, 227), who are not going to die happily, but rather, at the bullet of an uncompassionate individual.

Animals are not ours to use for entertainment; this is one of PETA’s phrases that should be followed without question. After all, one can make justifications for food, clothing, and science; but where is the ethical justification for watching a tiger jump through a flaming hoop because it fears a beating; where is the justification in a elephant calf being stolen from its mother because the breaking process requires separation and deprivation; where is the justification in sending an old lion to a facility where it is finally free to roam around in, but its sense of danger and trust has been warped, so that it doesn’t realize the man standing twenty feet away is about to murder him? In an ethical world, the only circuses that would exist would be animal-free ones, if not none at all. A large portion of society is beginning to catch on to what a circus animal’s life is actually like, but in truth, all of society needs to be educated and aware in order for true to changes to occur. That’s not to dismiss the beginning steps America has taken, with some states strictly regulating canned hunt facilities, and Ringling Bros. finally ending the use of elephants in their circus at all; however, these are just that: baby steps. They are small compared to the massive changes that still need to happen. No animal deserves to live its life in fear, cruelty, and sickness, away from everything that is natural to its species; no animal deserves to be exploited solely for the purpose of human entertainment. Elephant or tiger, bear or dog, every single circus animal deserves to be happy, and treated with kindness; and the only way this will happen is if the Greatest Show on Earth becomes the Greatest Animal-Free Show on Earth.

Works Cited

Admin. “Circuses: Three Rings of Abuse (Video and Article). World Change Café, 03 March 2009. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Bradshaw, G. A. Elephants in Circuses: Analysis of Practice, Policy, and Future (n.d.): 1-39. Animals and Society Institute. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.


Coghlan, Andy. “Circus Captivity is Beastly for Wild Animals.” New Scientist, 20 May 2009. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Good, Kate. “EXPOSED! Ringling Brothers and Barnam and Bailey Circus: The Cruelest Show on Earth!”. One Green Planet. 22 Aug. 2014. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Healy, Hannah. “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Big Cats in the Circus”. Peta, 8 March 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Ireland, Laura J. “Canning Canned Hunts: Using State and Federal Legislation to Eliminate the Unethical Practice of Canned Hunting”. Animal Law 8 (2002): 223-242. Web. 23 Oct. 2016

Nelson, Deborah. “The Cruelest Show on Earth”. Mother Jones, Nov-Dec 2011. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.