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Circus Animal Welfare

The MSPCA is opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses and traveling shows because of the abusive training inflicted on the animals, the near-constant confinement and chaining endured by the animals while not performing, and the risk posed to public health and public safety. Over 40 countries worldwide, 6 U.S. states, and more than 155 localities across 37 states including 13 cities and towns in Massachusetts: Amherst, Braintree, Cambridge, Mendon, Quincy, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Provincetown, Revere, Somerville, Topsfield, Weymouth, and Wilmington have passed restrictions or bans on the use of wild animals for entertainment.

In September 2019, Beulah the elephant, forced to perform at The Big E Fair in West Springfield, Massachusetts, died. Beulah was born in the wild in 1967, captured as a baby, and sold to the Commerford Zoo when she was 6 years old. She suffered from a painful foot disorder and spent most of her 54 years in captivity and in chains. Her owners have been cited by the USDA over 50 times for failing to adhere to the Animal Welfare Act. Learn more about this tragic news in a Masslive article and her cause of death in a subsequent piece.

Why are we concerned about wild animals in circuses?

Wild and exotic animals used for entertainment suffer their entire lives. They are taken from their families at a young age; endure abusive training methods that include restraints, bullhooks, chains, clubs, whips, and electric shock devices; and endanger public health and safety.

Abusive Training and Weak Legal Protections

Few legal protections exist for animals used in circuses. Though the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) requires that minimal standards of care and treatment are provided to warm-blooded animals traveling with circuses, the reality is that violations of the weakly enforced AWA law are an everyday occurrence. Wild animals do not perform circus tricks because they want to — they perform these confusing and physically grueling acts because they are afraid not to. Training sessions, where most of the abuse occurs, are not monitored by the AWA, and trainers regularly use physical abuse, including beatings, to coerce animals into performing difficult tricks on command. Standard training instruments include bullhooks, electric prods, whips, and chains. Circus trainers — to this day — often conceal wounds inflicted on elephants in training and during shows with a grey powder called Wonder Dust.

Even when circuses do abide by the minimal animal welfare standards set by the Animal Welfare Act, animals suffer. Many circus tricks, such as headstands and hind-leg stands, require animals to engage in repeated, unnatural maneuvers that place great stress on their muscles and joints and can result in crippling, long-term injuries. In fact, the leading causes of euthanasia in captive elephants are degenerative joint disease and foot disorders, caused by immobilization for prolonged periods of time and being forced to perform injurious circus “tricks” over and over again.

There are hundreds of documented incidents of circus animal abuse, both behind the scenes and, at times, in public. In one of the earliest incidents to be captured on video, a baby elephant named Mickey was beaten during a performance in Oregon in 1994. The 15-month-old elephant collapsed, screaming and bleeding as his trainer repeatedly struck him with a bullhook for failing to perform a trick. One spectator stated, “I have never heard a scream in my life like the scream that came out of that baby elephant.” The trainer pulled the elephant out of the tent and, “got it down on the ground again. It was screaming and trying to crawl away on its hands and knees like a human being.”

Here are just a few more examples:

  • In 2011, a trainer with Carson & Barnes was videotaped abusing an elephant in Lanesboro, Massachusetts; two weeks later the circus was cited by the USDA for using a bullhook with excessive force at a show in Connecticut.
  • In 2012, the USDA issued a warning against Franzen Bros. Circus for striking an elephant with a bullhook multiple times. This incident occurred about three months after Franzen performed for the Melha Shrine Circus in Massachusetts.
  • In April 2013, a whistleblower at Garden Bros. Circus, which was denied a license (read the Wicked Local article) in  2019 to perform in Walpole, Massachusetts, reported that they had never seen the animals receive veterinary care, including a sheep who suffered from an untreated broken leg for at least two weeks.
  • Later that same year, the general manager of Garden Bros. Circus was observed beating an elephant with a shovel.

Extreme Confinement

Animals in circuses spend up to 50 weeks a year traveling in poorly ventilated, cramped trailers, sometimes in extreme weather. Elephants are typically chained or confined to small pens, restricting movement to a step forward or backward. Immobilized for prolonged periods and forced to stand in their own urine and excrement, they commonly suffer degenerative joint disease and foot disorders, the leading causes of euthanasia in captive elephants. Bears, primates, and big cats also eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and urinate in cramped cages. Deprived of adequate exercise and appropriate social groupings, and with no opportunities to express natural behaviors, animals often exhibit signs of severe and chronic stress. Life in an unhealthy environment on the road also means that sick animals may not have access to immediate, expert veterinary care.

A Danger to Public Safety and Public Health

Wild animals are dangerous and unpredictable, and their use in traveling acts puts the public at risk. Hundreds of people have been injured by wild animals used in circuses and other traveling shows. Following is a small sample of dangerous incidents involving traveling shows that tour in Massachusetts. For a full list of circus animal incidents, see Born Free USA’s website.

  • 2017 – Brockton, MA: A capuchin monkey at the Brockton Fair bit an 18-year-old girl while she was feeding apples to the animal. The victim’s friend drove her to a medical center for treatment.
  • 2017 – Saratoga County, NY: A month after performing in Brockton, A Grizzly Experience show at a county fair was abruptly canceled after a bear clawed a handler’s face during an exhibition.
  • 2017 – Baraboo, WI: A Carson & Barnes elephant at Baraboo’s Circus World Museum escaped from the grounds and wandered into a residential area after another elephant opened the door of their enclosure.
  • 2015 – Perry County, GA: A lemur exhibited by Eudora Farms escaped from a cage at a county fair and bit two bystanders. Previously, a Eudora Farms baboon bit a 17-month-old boy at a county fair.
  • 2014 – St. Louis, MO: Three Carson & Barnes elephants escaped from handlers during a show, pushed through a door, and ran into the parking lot where they caused property damage and suffered injuries.
  • 2006 – Marlborough, MA: An elephant attacked and injured two Commerford Petting Zoo employees while giving rides at a fair.
  • 2003 – La Crosse, WI: During a show at a festival, a tiger charged at trainer Bruno Blaszak, knocked him down, and clawed him, causing leg wounds requiring 30 to 40 stitches.

Additionally, elephants can carry tuberculosis (TB), a zoonotic disease that can spread through the air, which puts anyone near an infected animal—elephant or human—at risk of contracting the disease. TB carried by elephants once used in the circus was linked by the CDC to an outbreak affecting 13 people in Tennessee, only one of whom had had direct contact with infected animals. Similarly, according to the CDC, in 2013, eight employees at the Oregon Zoo became infected after contact with an infected elephant.

What about economic impacts?

Animal-based acts have been decreasing in popularity for decades while ticket sales have skyrocketed at circuses that solely use skilled human performers, such as Cirque du Soleil. In response to this changing market landscape, some circuses have closed entirely — for instance, Ringling Bros. noted that changing public sentiment was a contributing factor in closing — while others have successfully transitioned away from an exotic animal-centered model.

Additionally, experts agree that circuses do not impact a local community’s economy. Rather than generate new economic activity, circuses redistribute a family’s discretionary spending. Most households allot a budget for entertainment, whether that is bowling, miniature golf, a movie, or a circus. And since traveling show owners and workers do not typically live in the communities they perform in, most of the money generated from the productions leaves town with the show.

How You Can Help
Below are five ways that you can help stop the suffering of wild animals in circuses.

1) Support state legislation to end the use of wild animals in circuses. Visit our webpage for more information on the “circus bill” and join our Animal Action Team to receive targeted alerts about when your help is crucial to passing animal protection laws.

2) Support/Start a Local Ban. You can help stop circuses that feature wild animals from coming to your town by working to pass a local ordinance that restricts wild animal acts. In Massachusetts, 13 cities and towns have all passed ordinances prohibiting circuses within their boundaries. Read Advocate Spotlights on our website that showcase citizen advocates behind the successful local campaigns. Contact us at advocacy@mspca.org to find out how you can do the same and find out about model language. Also, visit our webpages to learn why acting locally is important, and how to build support for your local issue.

3) Do not attend circuses that feature wild animals or participate in wild animal “rides.” Instead, choose animal-free circuses or visit animal sanctuaries. Find a list here. Learn more about problems with interactive wild animal displays on The Humane Society of the United States’ website.

4) Spread the word. Write letters to the editors of your local newspapers. Educate your relatives, friends, co-workers and local businesses about your research. Encourage them to take a stand against circuses. Ask your friends to visit this webpage and take action, too!

5) Learn more about animal protection, animal habitats, and circuses on these website: Born Free USA, The Elephant SanctuaryPerforming Animal Welfare SocietyThe Humane Society of the United States, and Nonhuman Rights Project.

Join the Animal Action Team to stay up to date on animal issues across the Commonwealth.

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