Educational Series: Cruel Animal Circuses Need to Go

By Nick Engelfried
In August 1994, a tanker ship that began its journey in California arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii with a massive prisoner in its hull. Tyke was an African elephant who was born in Mozambique, but was captured from the wild when she was a baby and spent most of her life performing in circuses in the U.S. She would soon become one of the most memorable and horrific fatal casualties of the animal circus industry.

By the time she reached Honolulu, Tyke would have been terrified and exhausted from the several days-long journey in the tanker. Yet, rather than having time to rest, she was taken to the nearby Blaisdell Arena and made to perform in a circus act. Tyke had endured such torture many times before, sometimes being forced to wear a clown costume or dance for the enjoyment of circus-goers. This time, however, she had been pushed past her limit. In a desperate attempt to escape, Tyke turned on her captors, kicking one of her groomers and killing her trainer as she charged toward the door.

As circus-goers fled the scene, Tyke crashed through the arena doors and charged into Honolulu’s business district. Local police fired 86 bullets into her over the course of half an hour, until she finally collapsed and died. Nearly thirty years later, the tragic story of Tyke stands as a stark reminder of the animal circus industry’s cruelty.

Since the 1800s, animal circuses have captivated countless people who are thrilled to see the performances of wild animals like elephants, big cats, and apes up close. However, for the animals forced to participate in these unnatural acts, the circus is a place of terror and torture. Dancing elephants, tigers jumping through hoops, and apes or monkeys riding bicycles are being forced to engage in behaviors that go against their instincts, with no consideration for the needs of these wild animals. Circus animals are typically fed unhealthy, artificial diets and have little opportunity to exercise properly or engage in social behaviors with others of their species. They may be trained using electric shocks, beatings, prods, and other types of cruel negative reinforcement.

When not on stage performing, most circus animals are kept confined to tiny, dirty cages. Many spend up to 50 weeks per year traveling en route from one performance to another. During the journey they are caged in trailers, other transport vehicles, or sometimes–as in the case of Tyke–in the hulls of tanker ships. For most animals, life in the circus is one long nightmare. Is it any wonder Tyke eventually snapped and burst out of the arena in a desperate bid for freedom?

Fortunately, public awareness of the cruelties of animal circuses has increased considerably since Tyke died in 1994. Many more people realize that they amount to torture for entertainment, and a growing number of circuses have decided to phase out animals altogether. In 2009, Bolivia became the first country in the world to ban all animal circus performances. Since then, many other national governments have taken action to limit or eliminate the use of all animals or of wild animals in circuses. Countries where wild animal circus acts are now prohibited include India, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Mexico, Iran, and over twenty European countries.

Yet, despite such progress, there are still many other parts of the world, including the United States, where animal circus acts remain perfectly legal. There have been some victories in this country; many individual towns and cities have banned animal circuses, and some of the largest and best-known circus names in the country have taken voluntary action to phase out animal acts. However, others–such as the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus and Loomis Bros. Circus–still use wild animals who are forced to perform unnatural acts that endanger both the wellbeing of the animals and the safety of human bystanders. For example, in a 2014 incident eerily reminiscent of the Tyke tragedy, three elephants belonging to Carson & Barnes Circus forced open a door to escape and charged into a parking lot.

Why has it been so difficult to end outdated animal circuses in the United States? The answer likely lies, in part, with tradition and the long history of such acts in this country. While the first circuses originated in Europe, it was in the U.S. in the 1800s that the phenomenon of the modern animal circus was truly born. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, acts like Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth popularized circuses that combined wild animal performances, human feats of daring, and other entertainment.

Without federal or state legislation to curb animal circuses, animal rights groups and others who oppose the industry have had to rely on public opinion to turn the tide. Groups like PETA have extensively documented abuses that go on–often behind closed doors–in circuses. For instance, photos taken by the organization appear to show baby elephants at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey (the modern successor to the original Greatest Show on Earth) being beaten, held down by ropes, and made to stand on concrete floors for up to twenty-three hours per day. Such tragic images have made a lasting impact on the public’s perception of animal circuses.

Perhaps the surest sign of changing attitudes has been the fate of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey (often referred to simply as Ringling Brothers) itself. In what was hailed as a momentous victory for animals, in 2017 the circus announced it was closing its doors permanently. This appeared to mark the demise of the most famous animal circus brand in history. However, in 2022, Ringling Brothers revealed it was making a comeback, but without animals. Going forward, the Greatest Show on Earth will be an entirely cruelty-free act, with no animals forced to perform. “PETA is cheering on the animal-free revamp,” Rachel Matthews, Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement, told Green Matters soon after the announcement.

Ultimately, the United States needs a nationwide ban on animal circuses. Such a law would need to be enacted by Congress, where progress on animal rights issues has been slow; however, in the meantime there is much we can do to reduce the number of animals still suffering in these shows. Animal advocates everywhere can push their state and local representatives to enact bans at the state or city level. Finally, by educating others about the cruelties involved in the industry, we can build momentum for a day when all animal circuses will be a thing of the past.

Photo credit: Alex Krasavtsev

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In what city did Tyke the elephant escape from the circus before being shot to death by police?
How much time would a circus animal typically spend being transported from one location to another?
Which country became the first in the world to ban all animal circuses in 2009?
Which of these circuses still includes animal acts?
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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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