When we think about the circus, we think about dancing clowns, fire breathing men walking on rope, flying acrobats and most importantly, exotic animals. Until at least a decade ago, the Western public only knew of exotic animals through the circus. Animals which typically originate from the Global South such as elephants, snakes, and tigers, were used as headliners to attract customers from across the UK. Families coming together and brewing excitement over acts which were considered unique and unusual. Things which you didn’t have the luxury of seeing unless they were on television.
But behind the scenes, animals used for the sole purpose of circus performances live a restricted and limited life, which some if not most people would describe as insufferable or torturous.
When we think about captive animals, we tend to think of a zoo. And when we think about their living conditions, we tend to think that these days, zoo animals live a great and stress-free life. As spectators, we are aware of the captivity of these animals, and zoos are generally known to prove themselves as ethically considerate towards animal welfare. They do this by being transparent about the conditions and treatment they provide animals, and by carefully planned and maintained living conditions- created to emulate the animals’ natural habitats.
Despite this, almost all animals are constrained in their capacity to roam freely, socialise, or pick and choose their own food. Whilst more sophisticated captive setting may be used in zoos to reduce behavioural issues brought on by captivity, circuses cannot replicate wild settings or most natural behaviours (RSPCA, n.d.). Animals in circuses are known to travel extensively. Numerous aspects of travel including forced movement, small, confined spaces, loud noises & handling by humans are all causes of distress for caged animals. On the question of whether animals become accustomed to constant travel, there is no firm proof suggesting so. Fortunately, there is evidence to suggest that travelling has significant consequences upon animal welfare, causing trauma to caged animals and may even negatively impact reproduction.
According to current scientific consensus, animals should not contribute or be subject to any form of captivity, although the animals which are best suited for such a life should have minimal requirements or needs in terms of living conditions (Poultry News, 2021)- temperature, space, food, etc. No wild or exotic animals which are infamously known to be featured in circuses currently come close to fitting these requirements (RSPCA, n.d.)
Countries such as Singapore, Costa Rica & Austria were amongst the first to place a nation-wide ban on the usage of exotic animals in circuses. It wasn’t until two years ago when the UK joined 30 other nations in passing this law (Born Free, n.d.).
Many could be shocked to find that there remain countries which permit the use of exotic animals in circuses, despite the general opinion of the public being against this. France, Germany, Australia & USA are yet to have state-wide prohibitions in place and unfortunately still allow the employment of exotic animals for entertainment purposes in circuses (Born Free, n.d.).
For the time being, we are subject to a waiting game. We currently do not have reassurance that such laws will be established world-wide, however we can partake in protests, sign petitions, and spread the word across social media. It all starts with awareness.