Report Finds Circus Animals Are Denied Lives ‘Worth Living’

Jorge267 via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jorge267 via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0 / Jorge267 via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0

A new report commissioned by the Welsh government has concluded that traveling circuses fail to meet legal standards for animal welfare [PDF]. The researchers say there is ample scientific evidence to support a ban on the inclusion of wild animals in circuses and other traveling shows.

Lead author Steven Harris—who researches ecology and animal population management at the University of Bristol in the UK—and his colleagues Jo Dorning and Heather Pickett had been studying the ethics and practicalities of animal welfare for years when they were approached to write the report. The government wanted to know what the scientific literature had to say about wild animals in circuses, and whether major stakeholders like conservationists, zookeepers, lawyers, and animal trainers felt the same way. They were especially interested in learning if circuses and other traveling shows were consistently meeting the requirements set down in the UK's Animal Welfare Act 2006.

The researchers reached out to 658 experts and organizations around the world for feedback. The pool included 138 animal trainers and circuses (ATCs); 206 animal welfare–focused lawyers and veterinarians (LVs); 107 employees of related non-government organizations (NGOs); 144 scientists; and 58 staff members from zoos and wild animal sanctuaries. They sent all the participants the same questionnaires, which included questions about living conditions, signs that animals were healthy, and which practices were good or bad for animal welfare.

The results revealed a substantial gulf in opinions and beliefs, with ATCs and NGOs on one side and scientists, lawyers, veterinarians, and sanctuary staff on the other. ATCs in particular were more likely to believe that animal training (which frequently relies on violence and other negative stimuli) was not stressful for wild animals and that frequent transport from show site to show site was actually good for them. Scientists, veterinarians, and other animal experts disagreed.

Analysis of the questionnaire responses and scientific literature on the subject led the researchers to a number of troubling, yet unsurprising conclusions:

  • Wild animals’ “five freedoms” (freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom to express normal behaviors; and freedom from distress) are consistently “…compromised in travelling circuses and mobile zoos.”
  • “Traditional animal training methods are coercive and based on force and aggression,” and circus trainers “have few or no recognised qualifications or formal training.”
  • There was a lot of disagreement over the definition of the term “wild animal.”
  • ATCs were comfortable keeping animals in enclosures that averaged 26.3 percent of the size recommended by zoos.
  • The report found “…no scientific evidence that wild animals fully adapt to frequent transport.

Overall, the authors wrote, “Life for wild animals in travelling circuses and mobile zoos does not appear to constitute either a ‘good life’ or a ‘life worth living.’”

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