Circuses have been in existence in their present form since the end of the 18th Century, and normally consist of a group of travelling performers and animals that perform to the public in a large tent.
The SPCA opposes the existence of traditional circuses as they cause
unnecessary suffering to animals.
Four main areas of welfare concern include travelling conditions, accommodation, training methods and the performance itself.
Captive animals kept by circuses travel very often and are subjected to forced movement, human handling, noise, confinement and cage motion during the process. A study by Lossa et al (2009) showed that on average circuses moved once per week, frequently without rest days between trips. There is little documented evidence on the effect of transport related stress on circus animals (Anonymous 2004), but evidence from studies on transported tigers from zoos show elevated cortisone levels lasting 3-6 days after transport even in those animals with regular experience of transport, suggesting that travelling is a stressful experience (Dembiec et al 2004). Conditions in the travel cages can prevent thermoregulation, particularly for Elephants that are transported chained, and the lack of enrichment in the barren enclosures is a welfare concern (Lossa et al 2009).
Accommodation provided to circus animals is normally more confined and less enriched than those found at zoos. The reduction in available facilities is compounded by the inappropriate use of travel cages as long-term or permanent enclosures. Confined spaces, social isolation, barren enclosures and a reduced foraging time are all stressors to non-domesticated animals (Lossa et al 2009). These stresses have been show to cause both short-term and long-term behavioural and physiological effects (Hemsworth and Barnett 2000) such as sterotypies (repeated behaviours) and suppressed immunity. While there have been few studies on stress levels in circus animals, Lossa et al (2009) showed that poor breeding success and reduced life span in circus elephants when compared with zoo elephants was an indicator of increased stress levels.
Reward based training may enhance captive animal health but training with the use of punishment (negative reinforcement) has been shown to cause welfare problems and a bad relationship between animal and trainer. The Circus Working Group Report (1998) reported that the use of negative reinforcement techniques was much more widespread than admitted by circus management.
The performance is an area that is often ignored by those assessing welfare of circus animals but a recent report conducted by a range of experts in the UK (Circus working Group Report, 1998) noted that the performance itself was potentially the most stressful situation experienced by a circus animal. In their review of 4 circuses they reported behaviours that showed fear and stress in elephants, lions and horses during parts of their acts.
Lossa G, Soulsbury CD and Harris S. 2009 Are wild animals suited to a travelling circus life? Animal Welfare 18:129-140
Dembiec DP, Snider RJ and Zanella AJ 2004. The effects of transport stress on Tiger physiology and behavior. Zoo Biology 23:335-346
Anonymous 2004. Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare on a request from the Commission related to the welfare of animals during transport.ESFA Journal 44:1-36
Hemsworth PH and Barnett JL 2000 Human-animal interactions and animal stress.The Biology of Animal Stress pp309-335
The Circus Working Group Report 1998.Born Free Foundation, RSPCA, CIEH, ACP, WildCru & BVA