The Harsh Reality of Animals in Circuses

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Ringling Bros. Circus works hard to keep their animal abuse hidden from your eyes. Circus employees are told to be on their best behavior so you won’t see them abusing animals. The worst abuse to circus animals happens during training, during transport and when you’re not watching.

Here’s what you won’t see. At Ringling’s private, training center, employees tear nursing baby elephants away from their mothers using ropes, chains, electric prods, and bullhooks – heavy steel devices resembling fireplace pokers with a sharp steel hook at one end.

Photo of a baby elaphant, tied down during training Photos taken at Ringling’s breeding facility show baby elephants younger than a year old bound with ropes around all four legs as well as the back, neck, and trunk. These baby elephants are forced to the ground, and aggressively pushed and pulled into unnatural and physically painful positions until they learn to perform meaningless “tricks.”

Animals used in circuses spend most of their lives in small cages and boxcars. Many of them are forced to train under threat of punishment from painful devices like whips and electric prods. When animals are unable to perform then they are sold to other circuses or they may end up on hunting ranches.

Forcing elephants into a life in the circus can be deadly for them. A lifetime in chains leads to foot infections and arthritis, the leading cause of euthanasia for elephants in captivity.

“The bullhook is designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to inflict pain and punishment. I should know. I used to make them.” -­­Sam Haddock, retired Ringling trainer

Mr. Haddock worked for Ringling for 30 years and was an elephant trainer for 8 years at their breeding and training facility in Florida. At his late wife’s urging, and before passing away himself, he came forward with dozens of disturbing images and a statement detailing how baby elephants are bound with ropes to break their spirits.

Alternatives to Circuses

  • Visit the Austin Zoo and Animal Sanctuary, where previously abused and neglected exotic animals live out the remainder of their days in peace.
  • Attend Austin’s own Circus Chickendog, featuring trained rescue dogs, juggling, unicycling, accordion and trombone music.
  • Human-only circuses, like Cirque du Soleil, visit Austin and Cedar Park. Did you know that Austin has at least two circus performance groups of its own? Sky Candy Austin and Blue Lapis Light perform aerial dance and can even teach you (or your kids) how to fly through the air on a trapeze.

Most people have never really thought about what happens behind the scenes at the circus, or how much of the animals’ lives are spent traveling in cages or chains. Ringling perpetuates this ignorance by portraying its performing animals as happy in its advertisements and marketing materials. We think that if more people were aware of how sad the lives of circus animals are, fewer people would want to attend the circus. More people would want to make their cities circus-free zones, as 46 cities in 21 states have done. In fact, at least 20 countries around the world have banned wild animals in circuses.

Austin prides itself on being a progressive, animal friendly city — an image that’s at odds with hosting wild animal circuses. We think it’s time for our town to say ‘no’ to shows with a documented history of animal abuse.

What can you do?