The Unnatural Lives of Performing Animals


Circuses that force animals to perform are the cruelest shows on earth! Animals used in entertainment are often forced to endure lifelong incarceration and confinement, poor living conditions, extreme physical danger and hardship, and brutal treatment. Most animals used for entertainment purposes are killed when no longer useful, sold into research, or shot on commercial hunting preserves.

When it comes to circus animals, their situation is unusual because they are always travelling and are never in the same jurisdiction for very long. There are no laws in Canada, or in the United States that specifically address the many problems that are unique to performing animals. Unfortunately, our existing laws are rife with limitations that prevent them from effectively protecting circus animals. For example, they tend to be punitive, rather than preventative, the offences are limited, penalties are minimal, and any fines given out could easily be seen by circus owners as one of the costs of doing business. Performing animals are an investment to their owners and trainers, and performing is what makes them valuable.

If an animal does not perform, the trainer has a strong incentive to utilize harsher methods to make that animal perform. A non-performing animal is a liability. Circus animals are often trained using intimidation, physical punishment, or other equally abrasive methods. Some trainers use pain to make their animals perform: nails, sharpened sticks and other easily disguised objects are often used to discipline animals during performances. The animals submit to their trainers and follow directions because they know what will happen if they do not obey. This is a side of circuses that few people see, because the training process takes place before a circus goes on tour, and is carried out behind locked doors on private property far from public scrutiny.

Circuses often claim that all of the tricks their animals perform are simply extensions of their natural behaviours. Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth. Except for very basic movements, such as walking and jumping, many of the tricks that wild animals perform are artificial, potentially dangerous and would never be seen in nature. It is highly unlikely that anyone in the world has ever seen tigers jumping through hoops of fire, elephants walking on their hind legs and standing on their heads, chimpanzees riding horses and bears doing headstands on rotating disco balls in the wild.

Although circus spectators think that performing animals appear healthy and happy, their looks can be deceiving. Large, highly intelligent, socially complex animals require far more than food, water and a tiny living space to remain physically and psychologically healthy. They need space to move around and behave normally, high levels of physical and mental stimulation, a proper social environment and some level of control over their lives.

Unfortunately, circuses provide none of these. The animals engage in few, if any, of their usually complex range of natural behaviours, such as hunting and foraging, playing, choosing mates, maternal care-giving, finding appropriate rest areas, building shelters, predator evasion, navigating, problem solving, and cooperation with other members of their species. Day after day, most of them perform the same simple routines. Other than their size, shape and colour, performing wild animals bear little resemblance to their counterparts in the wild, therefore, there is little to be learned by watching them.


Most circuses claim performing wild animals act as “ambassadors for their species” because they are an effective form of educating young people. This claim is not supported by empirical research. In fact, circuses have not produced any evidence that what they are saying is true. There is nothing educational that can be learned by watching wild animals perform in completely artificial settings and performing unnatural behaviours. The physical, psychological and social capabilities of wild animals are diminished, distorted and misrepresented in circuses. These shows do not teach anyone about the roles animals play in natural ecosystems, or the threats they face in the wild.

Much of the justification for the educational value of circus animals rests on the assumption that people need to see the animals live in order to care about them. In light of the potential costs to these animals, what must be questioned is the depth of the educational experience, and the inherent contradiction it raises. Encouraging feelings of empathy is a positive approach to how we treat nonhuman animals, but what level, or degree of empathy, for circus animals is actually elicited from visitors? Circuses do not promote empathy for the predicament of the animals involved.

In terms of how we view circus animals, we appear to be lacking in at least two prerequisites: We neither care about, nor respect the creatures enough. If the goal of having performing animals has anything to do with promoting these virtues, it is difficult to see how this is achieved when the practice itself is counter to these ideas. If we really respect and care about nonhuman animals, we should not place them in captivity and make them perform unnatural acts. In order to educate people effectively, the “moral climate” must be right, and given the costs to nonhuman animals, this unfortunately is not the case with animal circuses.

Although circuses try to claim that they are educating children to appreciate animals, they are in fact teaching children that animals are objects of amusement that can be exploited and ridiculed. If the lessons being taught are about controlling sentient creatures who are unable to defend themselves, how easy it might be to transfer these attitudes towards humans. It is inconceivable how teaching children mastery over and aggression towards others can in any way be a positive thing.

When you purchase a ticket to a circus that exploits animals, remember you are supporting their misery. If you want to enjoy a circus, there are many other options available. Circuses such as “Cirque du Soleil" offer a wonderful alternative, where you can watch high wire acts, death-defying acrobats, jugglers and clowns without any harm being done to any the nonhuman species.


Joan Reddy

Joan is a professional writer, photographer, animal advocate, and environmentalist. She holds a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of Toronto, and a Masters of Environmental Studies from York University, in Toronto, where her thesis focused on Indigenous culture and the environment.

Joan was a photographer and journalist for Metroland Media Group, and has also written numerous animal-related blogs, articles and product reviews for various commercial clients and nonprofit animal organizations. 

When Joan is not musing over words, she can be found on her 'urban farm' cuddling with her three cats and three rabbits.