The use of wild animals in circuses is inherently dangerous, particularly to circus staff who work with the animals, and to children who come into contact with them through rides and photo opportunities.
The wild animals used in circus performances tend to be large and powerful, with many possessing sharp canine teeth and claws capable of causing serious injury or death. Even in the best of circumstances, the strength and physical characteristics of many animals in circuses – notably elephants, tigers, lions and bears – make them dangerous animals to deal with.
The risk that many animals used in circus performances pose to public health and safety through direct attack, escape or temporary loss of handler control increases considerably because of poor animal welfare conditions, inadequate safety measures, and excessive handling and transport.
Dozens of incidents resulting in property damage, human injury and even death – have been documented in North American circuses, and they continue to occur with alarming frequency.
Poor Animal Welfare Increases Risk
The generally poor welfare of most animals in circuses directly impacts on staff and public safety, as animals are more unpredictable because they are less content. Wild animals in the circus are forced to live and travel in tiny transport cages or on chains or tethers. They are deprived of an ability to engage in natural movements and behaviours, even more so than most animals in zoos, so they become bored, frustrated and stressed.
Some constantly search for escape routes, or start to display abnormal behaviours, such as pacing, head bobbing and bar chewing. Others start to withdraw into themselves and interact less with their surroundings. Disturbed and chronically stressed animals are less predictable and reliable, which makes interactions with them much riskier.
Many trainers are also known to physically abuse the animals in their care, either to force them to perform on cue or simply to maintain dominance. Some animals, such as elephants, remember who abused them, and will strike out or attempt escape when an opportunity arises, endangering both the abuser as well as any bystanders.
Poor animal welfare conditions in circuses make animals far more dangerous than they would be in other environments, such as professional zoos and sanctuaries.
Inadequate Animal Enclosures And Few Safety Standards
Wild animals in circuses typically live and travel in small transport cages or on chains or tethers. A few have temporary caging constructed at each venue. These cages and restraints incorporate few, if any, of the safety features found in professional zoo cages. In addition, the routine handling and moving of animals, often in close proximity to members of the public, substantially increases the chances of animal escapes and attacks.
Circus trainers promote the belief that the animals are under their control at all times and pose no threat to public health and safety. This belief creates a false sense of security that places countless people at risk every year. Wild animals are unpredictable. Their natural, instinctive behaviours can surface at any time. They can react negatively to their environment and to novel situations, and must therefore be treated with caution at all times.
The Circus Cannot Protect You Or Your Community
There have been dozens of incidents in recent years in which performing animals have caused property damage, human injury and even death. One such incident occurred in Timmins, Ontario in the summer of 1999, when a 23 year- old circus worker was kicked in the head and killed by an elephant performing with the Leonardo Circus.
In response to increasing criticism about safety, some circuses have developed “emergency plans.” These plans are supposed to address the many hazards that exist when circuses bring large, potentially dangerous animals into crowded performance venues and urban areas. Circuses would like the public to believe that their emergency plans are adequate to safeguard audience members and the community at large. Unfortunately, these plans are woefully inadequate. They do nothing to address the dangerous effects of poor animal welfare conditions, excessive animal handling and moving, and unsafe cages and restraints. They also do little to protect human health and safety in the event of an animal attack or escape. Most circuses are inherently risky operations.
Dangerous Drugs And Kill Rifles Are Not the Answer
In dangerous situations, circuses have proposed the immobilization of animals, notably elephants, using several different drugs. But these drugs may take as long as 15 minutes after injection to have an effect, so most of the damage resulting from an elephant attack or escape will have already occurred.
When a potentially dangerous animal escapes from the circus and threatens human safety, circus and law enforcement officials may attempt to kill the animal using a “kill rifle.” But killing an enraged elephant, pumped full of adrenaline, is easier said than done. In one US incident, police fired more than 80 bullets into an escaped elephant, but it took three additional rounds in the skull from an assault rifle with armour-piercing bullets to finally kill the animal.
Even in the best of circumstances, firing darts containing controlled, dangerous drugs or using high-powered weapons in an emergency situation is fraught with risks and should be avoided if at all possible.
The Risk of Disease
Some performing animals pose an additional risk to public health because they carry transmissible diseases. For instance, some elephants are known to carry a strain of Tuberculosis (TB) that can be passed on to humans. Although healthy adults are not as likely to contract the disease, children can be much more susceptible – and children are typically the ones who come into direct contact with elephants and other animals at the circus, receiving rides or having their pictures taken with them.
In July, 2002, all of the Tarzan Zerbini Circus elephants performing at Shrine Circus shows, were deported to the United States by Canadian authorities because they had been exposed to another elephant who had tested positive for TB.