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Are Circuses Unethical in Their Treatment of Animals?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Transportation
Wordcount: 2777 words Published: 3rd Dec 2020

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Animals in entertainment and circuses

Throughout history, animals have been used for many purposes, including entertainment. However, it was not until the 1700s when animals began to become a main part of the acts, and by the late 1870s, exotic animals were being showcased regularly with Barnum and Coup ‘using as many as 20 elephants in a circus tent’.[1]

Mabel Stark was a renowned tiger trainer of the 1920s. She was one of the world’s first tiger women trainers. She ended up travelling with the AI G. Barnes Circus in 1911, and worked as a “high school” rider but she really wanted to work with big cats. One of her first acts included her riding a lion on a platform, then pressing a pedal that set off fireworks. On February 18, 1916, Stark was mauled by a lion whilst rehearsing for the Pacific Electric exhibit of the National Orange show in San Bernardino, California. The lion went on to roll over multiple times with Stark’s arm in its mouth, following blank shots at his face by her husband. Stark was rushed to hospital, unconscious, where she was treated for a broken arm. However, this was not her first mauling incident, she had previously been attacked by her leopards during a parade in 1915, and she was mangled in California.

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Despite all these incidents, she still continued to work with big cats and people continued to use various exotic animals in entertainment. On most occasions, the animals in these incidents are blamed for what has happened, and most people do not stop to think what triggered the violent behaviour, or whether the person involved had anything to do with the outburst. Considering this, is it really fair to say that these animals are being treated with respect and all people’s actions are ethical?

When I was younger, I often went to the circus with my dad and sister. One of my fondest memories was when we saw the horses trotting round, covered in feathers and dancing around the ring. As I’ve grown up, I have thought about this day more and more. Although I’m sure the horses were not mistreated, it did make me wonder how they were taught these incredible tricks and whether it was wilful or not. Many circuses use horses in circuses and expect them to perform tricks standing on their hind legs and walking backwards, which is completely against their nature. They only reason a horse would perform any tricks like this, is by fear or pain[2].

Although some circuses mistreat and abuse animals (whilst deceiving the public with fake smiles and hidden hooks), not all circuses are bad. For example, Cirque du Soleil is an animal-free-circus, and yet still is one of the biggest circus acts in the whole world. This shows that the use of animals is not compulsory for success and is an inspiration for other circuses to follow suit. Then again, it is possible for the circuses to treat these animals with respect and integrity, providing a counter argument that there can be ethical treatment, and the answer is not so black and white.

Advances in laws against the mistreatment of animals

Many countries are making advances on the ban of all animals in circuses, but some have not made any advances, e.g. France. However, in other countries there has been a ‘Nationwide ban on all animals in circuses: Cyprus, Greece, Malta and Bolivia’. In 2012, in the UK, the government pledged to ‘ban the use of wild animals in circuses’ but this still has not happened because of the bills being blocked by individual Conservative MPs [3]. Although the bills keep being blocked, the government has pledged that the use of wild animals in travelling circuses will be banned from 2020 (following many long-running campaigns by animal welfare advocates). Also, similar bans have been passed in Ireland, Scotland and are under discussion in Wales[4].

As part of my answer to this question, I wanted to include some religious views and see if that affected anything. I found that for most of history, Christians believed that human beings could treat animals however they wished because they had few moral obligations towards animals. As they believed that humans were superior to animals. However, ‘modern Christians generally take a much more pro-animal line’. They now think that any unnecessary mistreatment of animals is morally wrong and seen as a sin[5]. Whereas Muslims believe that all living creatures were made by Allah, and that Allah loves all animals, therefore meaning they must be treated with kindness and compassion. Muslim’s are instructed to avoid treating animals cruelly, overworking/ overloading them, neglecting them etc[6]. Although this is not directly related to animals being used for entertainment purposes (specifically in circuses), it does tell us that different religions have different views on animal welfare and where they stand in comparison to humans.


As a part of my research, I watched a documentary called Blackfish. It is about the treatment of killer whales in captivity, and more specifically SeaWorld. I was shocked at the amount of mistreatment these defenseless animals endure and the lack of ethics that some of these people have. Killer whales are giant, beautiful, intelligent animals, who are very family orientated. A trainer from SeaWorld said that “When you look into their eyes, you know somebody is home. You form a very personal relationship with your animal”. Although there is no denying that the trainers share a bond with the mammals, there is also no denying that they are wild animals that can exhibit violent behaviour. Even though there have been no reported incidents of orcas attacking humans in the wild, there have been 70+ cases in captivity.

One of the most famous cases was that of Dawn Brancheau. 39 years before the attack, the baby orcas were stolen from their families and taken into captivity. In 1983, a male killer whale was captured in the north atlantic. At 2 years of age, he was already 11.5 feet long, and by four, he was up to 16 feet and weighed 4,000 pounds. They named him Tilikum. Originally he was kept at Sealand in Canada, and in 1991, there was an incident, in which a trainer, Keltie Byrne, fell and was dragged into the enclosure, where she was repeatedly pulled under water and as a result drowned. Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld and continued his career there, whilst completely ignoring his past. Tilikum grew to be 12,000 pounds, and as a result of his enormous size, was a victim of aggression from the other females in his enclosure. His wounds were visible, but still ignored. Most trainers claimed they stayed because they felt sorry for the whales and feared for them. Dawn Brancheau was one of the senior trainers at SeaWorld and was deemed one of the most experienced. During a show, Tilikum grabbed Dawn’s left forearm and proceeded to do a barrel roll and drag her into the water. Although this behaviour may have started off as being playful, it quickly escalated to violent, aggressive behaviour, and in the end he completely mutilated her. SeaWorld reported that it was trainer error and that Tilikum grabbed a hold of Dawn’s long ponytail, which should have been tied back.

SeaWorld have blatantly lied and fabricated the truth on many occasions, and this is all to protect their image. Beside all the evidence supporting the case that these whales are tortured and mistreated, they are still kept in captivity and used daily in shows. Many former trainers agree that there is nothing ethical with keeping wild animals trapped in a concrete pool. On May 30, 2012, judge Ken Welsch issued a ruling on OSHA vs. SeaWorld. During shows, SeaWorld trainers must now remain behind barriers, separated from the orcas.

SeaWorld is a multi-billion dollar industry that continues to grow despite all the petitions and fatal cases that have happened. This proves that money can truly silence anything and anyone. If SeaWorld were truly ethical and proud of how they treat their animals, they would have no fear in answering many questions they have completely ignored. Tilikum has been used to mate with multiple female orcas, meaning that there are dozens of offspring with Tilikum’s DNA in, which has proven to be unpredictable and unsafe. If industries continue to ignore the fact that these are wild animals that have natural instincts, then fatal, heartbreaking cases like Dawn’s will continue to happen.

My thoughts on future improvements that should be made

As I mentioned earlier in my essay, some improvements have already been made in certain parts of the world, including the UK. Petitions, laws and bans all help improve the welfare of animals and ensure that the horrific trauma they endure, comes to an end. Most elephants used by circuses are captured in the wild and removed from their families and beautiful natural habitat, only to be forced into a life full of chains, whips and intimidation. Baby elephants born in breeding farms are torn from their mothers and isolated with their only contact being their trainer, who’s job is to terrify and ‘break’ the infants, ready to be used for our entertainment[7].

The Five Freedoms outline five aspects of animal welfare under human control:

  • Freedom from hunger or thirst – ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health
  • Freedom from discomfort – providing an appropriate environment with shelter and a comfortable resting area
  • Freedom from pain, injury or disease – prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  • Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour – providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animals’ own kind
  • Freedom from fear and distress – ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

At the moment, circuses do not follow these ‘Five Freedoms’ closely enough at all, and I think that the government needs to ensure that all of these requirements are met. If it was a human living under these conditions, it would be all over the news and be a top priority, yet for our entertainment there are thousands of animals living under physical and mental suffering.

I am in no way saying that all circuses should be shut down and that they should all be banned, because I understand that it is still a job for many people and many members of the public enjoy it for a family day out. However, I do not understand why this must involve cruel acts of suppression and torture to beautiful creatures that should be allowed to roam free in the wild. In order for circuses to be more ethical and ensure better treatment for the animals, there should be very specific and strict laws that they must follow and I hope that other countries follow the Nationwide ban and also ban all animals in circuses.

Personal opinion on animals in circuses and their treatment

When I originally began thinking about this topic and how I wanted to answer it, many ideas came to mind. I knew I wanted to include a bit about the history of animals in entertainment, and incorporate any improvements to different countries in comparison to the UK. Whilst researching, I found out many interesting yet worrying things. For example, there are more than 500,000 animals suffering worldwide for the sake of entertainment[8]. This made me even more passionate about my topic and encouraged me to conduct further research. Whilst completing this project, my opinion has not changed massively from my original judgement, but it has been shaped and challenged by different (and sometimes contradicting) findings.

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One of my main sources was PETA, and they say that ‘circuses portray a distorted view of wildlife’, and I couldn't agree more. The animals live in confined and cramped spaces and endure violent training, involving fear, pain and domination. It is awful to think that the standard practice is to ‘beat, shock and whip them’ to force them to perform tricks that go against their natural instincts[9]. It is heart-breaking to think that the Kings of the wild, powerful animals like lions and tigers have their spirit broken and are forced to do unnatural tricks against their own will. The harsh training methods cause the animals to be terrified of their trainers, who are most often the ringmaster with a whip.


In order to make a valid conclusion, I wanted to address all the points necessary, including a for and against argument. Although my argument was heavily for the idea that circuses are unethical in their treatment of animals, that does not necessarily mean that it will always be the same or that everywhere is the same. After doing my research, I have come to understand that many trainers in the industry stay in their jobs in order to look after the animals as they fear what would happen to them if they did not. For example, SeaWorld trainers form a special bond with their animals and struggle when they are mistreated or treated like a museum attraction. So, in conclusion, I have decided that circuses are unethical in their treatment with animals, as well as many other acts in the entertainment industry. However it is not a complete yes or no question, as it requires further investigation into the factors of the case.

[1] "Why Circuses That Use Domestic Animals are Still Abusive ...." 21 Apr. 2015, https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/why-circuses-that-use-domestic-animals-are-still-abusive-attractions/. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

[2] "Why Circuses That Use Domestic Animals are Still Abusive ...." 21 Apr. 2015, https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/why-circuses-that-use-domestic-animals-are-still-abusive-attractions/. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

[3] "ban on the use of wild animals in circuses - One Green Planet." https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/banning-wild-animals-in-circuses/. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

[4] "Wild animals to be banned from circuses in England by 2020 ...." 27 Feb. 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/wild-animals-circus-ban-england-2020-defra-government-a8230691.html. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

[5] "Religions - Christianity: Animal rights - BBC." 3 Aug. 2009, https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/christianethics/animals_1.shtml. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

[6] "Religions - Islam: Animals - BBC." 13 Aug. 2009, https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/islamethics/animals_1.shtml. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

[7] "Quick Facts | PETA." https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/circuses/circus-resources/quick-facts/. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

[8] "Stop Animal Abuse for Wildlife Tourism! | Red Flag ... - YouTube." 2 Apr. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8UKnxRUT_Y. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

[9] "Quick Facts | PETA." https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/circuses/circus-resources/quick-facts/. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.


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