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Animals in Circuses: Ringling and Reality

Most people are concerned about the well-being of animals and want to know that the animals used in circuses are treated well. We have concluded that truly respecting these animals means allowing them to have full and free lives on their own terms in their natural homelands -- not confined to a circus ring. The information below is designed to help you draw your own conclusions about the use of non-human animals in circuses.

Ringling: If you are concerned about how our animals are treated you "should just go and look at our animals."

Reality: Beyond appearances, there are deeper questions about what life is like for these animals . For spectators, the circus is a special event that comes once a year, but the animals never get a day off. These animals are constantly chained or in cages, performing night after night and then loaded onto a train, only to repeat the cycle day in and day out for most of the rest of their lives.

Ringling: Trainers and animals have a "wonderful relationship."

Reality: The relationship is not one of love, but of domination. Tigers do not choose to run away with the circus, and zebras -- who cannot be domesticated -- do not choose to repeatedly perform tricks on cue. When elephants escape from the circus, they are shot and killed -- not lured back with food. A concerned public cannot rely on assurances of good treatment from the same corporation that needs a positive public image to sell tickets.

Ringling: Tricks are based on natural behaviors.

Reality: Captive animals are denied the ability to express their natural behaviors such as having extended social groups and living on large territories. Realizing that it is not possible to meet elephant's needs in captivity, zoos like the Bronx and Philadelphia Zoos have increasingly decided to end or phase out keeping elephants.

Ringling: "When you have met an [elephant's] biological needs, what more can you do?"

Reality: Elephants are complex social beings, not machines. The New York Times Magazine ("An Elephant Crackup?" Oct. 8, 2006) detailed how elephants are "profoundly social creatures" who maintain relationships over 70 years and visit the graves of the dead they have buried. Through habitat loss, poaching, and systematic killing by governments, the "fabric of elephant society" has been frayed and elephants now "exhibit behavior typically associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related disorders in humans." Similarly, the circus environment cannot provide for normal social groupings, which includes things like young elephants not leaving their mothers' side for eight years, and the presence of male elephants, who are too dangerous to use in circuses.

Ringling: Our captive breeding program is "essential to the survival of the Asian elephant species."

Reality: Ringling rears a herd of captive elephants for its own profit. Ringling was forced to set up a captive breeding facility after new laws required them to stop importing elephants captured in their own territories. The elephants born into the circus are destined for a life of captivity and will never be freed. The real threat to free-living elephants is habitat destruction, which Ringling does nothing to prevent.

Ringling: Elephants get pedicures.

Reality: Captive elephants require foot trimming. Free-living elephants naturally wear down their continuously-growing soles, but denied true freedom of movement, captive elephants face serious foot problems.

 Ringling: Elephants get baths.

Reality: The elephants get hosed down and have no access to water or mud, whereas free-living elephants spend several hours a day in rivers or pools.

Ringling: The circus is a tradition.

Reality: When it's time to eliminate a long-standing practice that we now recognize as unjust, people defend it by calling it "tradition." The duration of this wrong cannot make it right, but we can replace it with a new tradition. Rather than teaching children to applaud confinement, abusive training, and commercial exploitation of animals for our entertainment, we can instead stand up for animals by 1) choosing to attend only circuses that use exclusively human performers and 2) working to help free-living animals.

Ringling quotes from CT Post article, "Rallies planned in elephant's defense" Oct. 15, 2006 and their website. Well-known elephant facts compiled from various sources on file with Friends of Animals.