Animal Cruelty In Circuses Essay Contest

SARASOTA, Fla. - Goodbye to death-defying feats - daring young men (and women) on the flying trapeze, whip-wielding lion tamers, human cannonballs. Goodbye to the scent of peanuts and popcorn, the thrill of three rings, the jaunty bum-bum-dadadada of circus music.

Send out the clowns. The Big Top is coming down - for good.

On Saturday, officials of the company that owns the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it will close in May, ending a 146-year run that dates back to a time before automobiles or airplanes or movies, when Ulysses S. Grant was president and minstrel shows were popular entertainment.

What killed the circus? There are many suspects: increased railroad costs. Costly court battles with animal rights activists that led to an end to elephant acts - and the fact that some people didn’t want to see a show without elephants.

In a press release, animal rights group PETA celebrated the circus’ demise.  

“Thirty-six years of PETA protests, of documenting animals left to die, beaten animals, and much more, has reduced attendance to the point of no return,” PETA’s statement read. “All other animal circuses, roadside zoos, and wild animal exhibitors, including marine amusement parks like SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium, must take note: society  has changed, eyes have been opened, people know now who these animals are, and we know it is wrong to capture and exploit them.”

But mostly, in an era of Pokemon Go, online role playing games and YouTube celebrities, the “Greatest Show on Earth” doesn’t seem so great.

“It’s been through world wars, and it’s been through every kind of economic cycle and it’s been through a lot of change,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Bros. “In the past decade there’s been more change in the world than in the 50 or 75 years prior to that. And I think it isn’t relevant to people in the same way.”

Just this week, the circus made headlines when it announced that a woman would be ringmaster for the first time in the show’s 146-year history.

“It’s really amazing because all of these different experiences that I’ve had the opportunity to have in my life have really blended together in an amazing way to prepare me to lead the greatest show on Earth,” Kristen Michelle Wilson told CBS News. 

For a long time, the circus was more than relevant - it was the stuff that dreams were made of.

The first circuses were created in Europe; the American twist would be canvas tents that allowed mobile troupes to go to the far-flung audiences of the 19th century.

Phineas Taylor Barnum’s traveling menagerie was wildly popular, while the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits in Wisconsin. Eventually, Barnum, the Ringlings and another performance-minded businessman named James Bailey pooled their resources and knowledge. Some of the early performances were merely zoos on wheels and a few human oddities, but over time, the acts became truly spectacular - attractions like Jumbo, touted as the world’s largest elephant.

Sprawling companies traveled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals. Deborah Walk, assistant director of legacy and circus at The Ringling - circus impresario John Ringling’s mansion, art and circus collection in Sarasota - said that the circus’ impact on small town America is often overlooked.

“That wonderful show that you can see in Madison Square Garden crisscrossed the country and ended up in San Francisco. And every place in between saw the same thing,” she said.

“In the 1880s, especially, here you had this huge colossal canvas city that tracked across the country. It brought the wonders of the world to your door. You didn’t have to go to Africa or Asia to see the animals.”

The circus also heralded societal changes, she said. Women became performers around the turn of the 20th century (although there would be no African-American or female ringmasters until 2016).

When the circus came to town, kids dreamed of running away to join it and its ever-changing roster of stars: the sad-faced clown, Emmitt Kelly; the daredevil trapeze act, the Flying Wallendas; Gunther Gabel-Williams, blond-maned and fearless in the ring with the big cats.

The circus was so important to home-front morale that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave Ringling Bros. special permission to use the rails during World War II.

“The circus is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in a three-page essay for the Ringling Bros. program in 1953. “It is the only spectacle I know, that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”

But as the 20th century went on, kids became less enthralled. Movies, television, video games and the internet captured young minds. The circus didn’t have savvy product merchandising tie-ins or Saturday morning cartoons to shore up its image. After 1956, the circus no longer performed under tents, moving to arenas.

The public grew conflicted about animal acts. Circuses without animals - such as Cirque du Soleil - were smaller and growing in popularity.

Animal rights activists put pressure on cities where the circus toured. Los Angeles and Oakland prohibited the use of bull-hooks by elephant trainers. Asheville, North Carolina, banned wild or exotic animals from performing in the city-owned stadium.

In May of 2016, after a long and costly legal battle, the company removed the elephants from the shows and sent the animals to live on a conservation farm in Central Florida. The animals had been the symbol of the circus since Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882.   

In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year legal battle over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants.

The initial lawsuit was filed by a former Ringling barn helper who accepted at least $190,000 from animal-rights groups. The judge called him “essentially a paid plaintiff” who lacked credibility and standing to sue, and rejected the abuse claims.

Kenneth Feld testified about the elephants’ importance to the show at that 2009 trial.

“The symbol of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ is the elephant, and that’s what we’ve been known for throughout the world for more than a hundred years,” he said.

Asked whether the show would be the same without elephants, Feld replied, “No, it wouldn’t.”

And, it wasn’t. Feld Entertainment removed the elephants in 2016, sending all 40 of them to their Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. Ticket sales plummeted. The circus, already an afterthought for many, receded further in the public mind.

Jeff and Carol Fouse of St. Louis, Missouri, toured the Ringling Circus Museum on a recent day. They saw the old-timey diorama of the circus encampments. They shuffled past the colorful, sequined ringmaster costumes and peered into the rail cars that were once filled with clowns and elephants and even a pygmy hippo.

Then they squinted into the bright Florida sunshine. “I don’t even know if there is a circus anymore,” said Jeff Fouse, a 63-year-old engineer, tilting his head.

The Feld family, which bought the circus in 1967, has branched out and bought and created other large-scale touring shows, such as Disney on Ice, Marvel Live and Monster Jam. Each was specialized with characters and stories, but Feld made sure that each had a bit of the circus in them, as well. It was, after all, about the show.

But the circus, itself, was dying.

The Felds said they looked at scenarios and costs. They ran numbers and tried new things - an interactive phone app, ice skaters in the show, adding motorcycle stunts - but nothing worked.

The show will go on at smaller and more specialized circuses. But come May, after almost a century and a half of spectacular revels, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will vanish, like a big, colorful, improbably long dream.

Sixty-three years ago, in his circus program essay, Hemingway marveled at the way performers made stunts and tricks in the ring look so simple.

“It is all wonderfully easy in your dreams,” he wrote.


In the News May 2017: Read Los Angeles Times Op-ed written by LCA's President, Chris DeRose

LA Times:  Click Here


Held in Uniondale, New York, Sunday 5/21/17

 LCA President & Founder Chris DeRose led a very special demonstration at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus' last show on Earth! The final performance marked the end of a cruel era of Ringling breeding animals or stealing them from the wild and forcing them to perform demeaning, unnatural tricks out of fear.

The end of Ringling Bros. was a hard-won victory that followed decades of investigations and protests by LCA and other animal advocacy groups. The demonstration at the final show commemorated the occasion as well as urged Ringling to send the animals to sanctuaries and not sell them to zoos or other exploitative facilities.


CLICK HERE to contact your congressperson and urge them to pass H.R. 1759, The Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act (TEAPSPA). This bill would ban the use of all exotic animals in traveling shows in the U.S.

 After 146 years, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, owned by Feld Entertainment, announced they are closing down.

For decades, LCA has been at the forefront of undercover investigations and nonstop protests that garnered international attention exposing the severe animal cruelty that Ringling so desperately tried to hide and deny.

Ringling’s CEO, Kenneth Feld, sent one of his own investigators, Steve Kendall, to spy on LCA's President, Chris DeRose. That move backfired as the investigator ended up “flipping” and worked with LCA after realizing the cruelty involved in Ringling’s training tactics.

Steve Kendall was hired by Feld and worked for him for 8 years gathering information about leaders of the animal rights movement, but ended up helping LCA by supplying intel against Ringling.

“Anyone that gets in Kenneth Feld’s way, he investigated. Chris DeRose was a threat, one of the biggest. Kenneth singled out individuals that targeted the shows and looked for other ways to combat them, trying to shut down those people and organizations (LCA, PETA) economically,” states Mr. Kendall.

LCA’s undercover investigator exposed some of the most egregious acts by trainers of circus elephants in the 15 years he worked for LCA, at serious risk to his own life.

It has been widely documented that Feld Entertainment employed unscrupulous tactics to obtain and train its performing animals:

  • Stealing infants from their mothers. An estimated 50 percent of the Asian elephants owned by Ringling were captured and torn from their families in the wild
  • Using bullhooks, ropes, and electric prods to forcibly train animals to perform unnatural, ridiculous tricks out of fear and domination
  • Failing miserably to meet even minimal federal standards of care for the animals
  • Entrapping animals for up to 11 months on the road in cramped, filthy boxcars and trailers

Succumbing to the nonstop outcry against the use of elephants in the circus, Ringling finally ended its elephant act in May of 2016. LCA, along with dedicated supporters and activists, kept up the fight, demanding an end to the use of all the animals. Because of actions like LCA’s, ticket sales dropped dramatically.

Chris DeRose leads the protest outside Ringling Bros. last elephant show

On behalf of the animals, we are ecstatic about this victory. Ringling fought to continue the circus despite the continuous exposure of animal cruelty and public outcry. It’s been a long, grueling battle, but LCA always knew that we would prevail and make a difference.

LCA thanks all of you who protested, signed petitions and wrote letters as we fought for this hard-won victory. Together, real change has been made for Ringling's circus animals and it would not have happened without you!

Thank you for helping to end Ringling’s brutal treatment of animals. LCA will keep up the fight until no more animals suffer in the name of entertainment!

Animal Cruelty at Circuses




Watch the undercover footage that aired on California’s KCAL-9 News. 

Circus animals do not willingly stand on their heads, jump through rings of fire, or ride bicycles. They don’t perform these tricks because they want to and they don’t do any of these meaningless acts in their natural habitat. The ONLY reason circus animals perform is because they are scared of what will happen to them if they don’t. 

The circus would like you to think that these intelligent and sentient creatures perform because they are positively reinforced with food, praise etc. There is no such thing as positive reinforcement for animals in the circus - only varying levels of punishment, neglect, and deprivation. These animals have limited access to food and water as to will them to perform, as well as to prevent untimely defecation and urination while they are on stage or in public view.

An LCA investigator went undercover inside the Carson & Barnes Circus, where he documented extreme animal abuse, including elephants being beaten with baseball bats, pitchforks, and other objects; shocked with electric prods; and hit on the head and across the face. LCA worked with local media to expose this cruelty and filed a complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture.


Training circus animals involves physically punishing them. These training practices generally will be hidden from public view to make the audiences believe these animals want to and are willing to perform. Because these animals have been conditioned through violent training sessions, they know that refusal to obey in the ring will result in severe punishment later. Moments before entering the ring, while just outside of public view, trainers may give the elephants painful whacks or blows to remind them who’s in control and to ensure that the elephants perform the specified tricks on command.

Animals in the circus are routinely whipped, beaten with long metal rods, shocked with electric prods, and struck with clubs. Trainers often strike elephants with a bullhook or an ankus on the sensitive areas of their skin such as around their eyes, under their chin, inside their mouth, and behind their knees and ears. A bullhook is also sometimes used to hit animals across the face. Bears have their noses broken and their paws burned to teach them to walk on their hind legs. Carson & Barnes trainers have even been documented using blowtorches on elephants. Circuses easily get away with these cruel practices because no government agency monitors training sessions.


Ringling elephant farm training

A number of animals are even drugged to make them more manageable. Others have their teeth removed; one group of chimpanzees had their teeth knocked out by a hammer. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus use some of the worst training practices with elephants ever documented. Elephants have a very similar life cycle to humans and they care for their young much like we do. These captive elephants are forced to breed as young as 8 years old, that’s like breeding an 8-year-old child. After the mother gives birth, tied by 3 legs the entire time, the babies are taken away immediately which causes the mother severe duress. Ringling Bros. chains the mother by all 4 legs to take the baby away so that the mother elephant won’t be able to hurt the trainers. Even before being weaned these baby elephants are put in a separate area from their mothers and are then chained for up to 23 hours a day. In the wild, elephants often nurse their babies until five years of age. Then the “correction process” for the baby elephants starts where they are tied up and beaten repeatedly to break their spirit. This training process is so brutal, that Ringling Bros. WILL NOT let their own PR department film the training of these baby elephants.


Ongoing travel means that circus animals are confined to boxcars, trailers, or trucks for days at a time in extremely hot and cold weather, often without access to basic necessities such as food, water, and veterinary care. Elephants, primates, big cats, and bears are confined to cramped, filthy cages in which they eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and urinate- all in the same place. The climates circus animals encounter during their exhaustive travels are often very different than that of their natural habitats. Bears are forced to endure extreme heat in the summer, and sometimes even walk across hot concrete on their way into the performing arena. Lions, on the other hand, find the cold very difficult to bear; some circus animals freeze to death.

The majority of circus elephants are captured in the wild. These wild elephants walk as much as 40 miles a day while in their natural habitat. Once captured, they are chained in one place for up to 23 hours a day. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus brags that it’s three units travel more than 25,000 miles as the circus tours the country for 11 months each year. Ringling Bros. own documents state that on average, elephants are chained for more than 26 hours straight and are sometimes continually chained for as many as 60 to 100 hours. When the animals arrive at their next destination, instead of being let off the railway cars immediately after arriving at the arena, they are sometimes forced to remain inside for hours despite extreme temperatures.

Two large cats in cramped cage at Ringling Bros

Baby elephants chained at Ringling's elephant farm


Ringling elephants and trainerElephants are very social creatures and they form tight bonds with their families and other elephants. They feel joy, compassion, sadness, and grief just like humans do. Many circus animals become dysfunctional, unhealthy, depressed, and aggressive as a result of unnatural and unrelenting confinement in which they are kept and treated. When these elephants have their babies taken away, that lifelong relationship is abruptly terminated and every moment, every natural instinct, and every natural behavior is subject to discipline.

Some signs of abnormal behavior found in captive elephants include rocking, swaying, head-bobbing, or other repetitive movement. These behaviors are signs of extreme psychological distress. Elephants who are breathing with their mouths open are usually in pain. Captive large cats and bears pace back and forth and some bears have been known to beat their heads against their cages. Bar biting and self-mutilation are also common among circus animals and is directly related to the stress caused by confinement.


Wild animals behave instinctively and unpredictably. Circus animals have run amok through streets, crashed into buildings, attacked members of the public, and killed and injured handlers.

Additionally, some circus elephants have been diagnosed with a human strain of Tuberculosis (TB) and have passed it on to their handlers. Elephants in circuses are predisposed to TB because of routine transport that often exposes them to other infected elephants and because of stress factors, including severe punishment, constant confinement, inconsistent water quality and food supply, and poor nutrition. TB is an airborne disease which spreads through tiny droplets in the air. If TB is diagnosed in an elephant there are clear public health implications as the disease can be spread by close contact with infected animals and people. Circuses often allow members of the public to feed, pet, and ride the elephants which puts them at a great risk.

Observing circus animals teaches the public and children nothing about the natural behaviors of the animals. A lot of people mistakenly believe that captive breeding will help elephants and other species from becoming extinct. However, elephants that are born in the breeding centers of circuses can never be returned to the wild. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus operate under the umbrella of conservation. Ringling Bros. built a property in Florida that is known as “The Center for Elephant Conservation”. This “farm” is not open to the public. A former worker at Ringling’s elephant farm became a whistleblower on their training methods and took pictures and videos detailing the abuse. Gary Jacobson, the general manager of Ringling’s elephant farm, was filmed roping all four legs of baby elephants and then stretching their legs in every direction to force them to the ground and break their spirits.


LCA and animal activists have protested Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses throughout the United States. LCA’s campaign against animals in circuses is dedicated to educating the public about the abuse circus animals suffer and working to get current footage and information to put an end to traveling animal circuses.

LCA needs volunteers to attend protests and to help film and photograph the circus. To volunteer, click here.


• Do not visit circuses that use animals.
• Write to circus sponsors and tell them you do not want to see wild animals in circuses, for the sake of the animals and the public.
• Write letters to editors of local newspapers asking sponsors to stop supporting the circus.
• Organize or attend a protest.
• Support legislation protecting circus animals.
• Report any possible violations of state and local animal protection laws to the police and animal control.


• Cirque du Soleil
• The New Pickle Family Circus
• Bindlestiff Family Circus
• Circus Millennia
• Circus Smirkus
• Cirque Eloize
• Circus Oz
• Mexican International Circus
• Cirque Ingenieux
• Earth Circus
• Fern Street Circus
• Little Russian Circus
• Neil Goldberg’s Circus
• New Shanghai Circus
• Circus Vargas

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