Animals used in circuses and other traveling exhibits are routinely subjected to months on the road confined in small, barren enclosures. The enclosures are rarely controlled for the extremes of temperature to which the animals are exposed and are not cleaned often enough, leaving the animals to stand, sit, or lie in their own urine and feces. The animals are often deprived of food and/or water during travel and before performances. They are routinely chained the majority of the time with no chance to exercise, socialize with other animals, or express the range of behaviors that are natural for them. With few exceptions they are provided with limited and inconsistent veterinary care.
Despite claims to the contrary, trainers usually use excessive and abusive training methods to establish and maintain the control that is necessary to force wild and exotic animals to perform the tricks that they do during circus acts. Regardless of training, wild and exotic animals behave instinctively and often unpredictably. Therefore, wild animals, trainers, and spectators are all subjected to unnecessary and substantial safety risks when wild or exotic animals are forced to perform unnatural tricks repeatedly and to endure relentless traveling schedules. Although there is some disagreement as to the number of circus-related injuries and deaths, one U.S. government official has indicated that between 1983 and 2000, at least 28 people were killed in incidents involving captive wild or exotic animals and more than 70 others were seriously injured, including 50 spectators.
One horrifying account of the risks posed by forcing wild or exotic animals to perform for public amusement was conveyed by Officer Blayne Doyle of the Palm Bay Police Department in his June 13, 2000 hearing testimony before the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime. Officer Doyle, who was on traffic duty during a February 1, 1992 circus performance, witnessed an 8,000-pound elephant named Janet go on a rampage while giving elephant rides to a woman and five children. After attacking her trainer, Janet picked up Officer Doyle with her trunk and threw him about 35 feet in the air. When Janet turned to run back inside the circus tent, Officer Doyle shot her 34 times in the head, which did not stop Janet. According to Officer Doyle, it was only after the firing of 55 rounds of 9mm ammunition, the guns police officers normally carry, and two 30-odd six armor piercing rounds, that Janet was brought down. Janet died, and approximately 17 spectators were injured during the incident.
As recently as September 20, 2002, a six-year-old boy required 55 stitches for two cuts on his scalp sustained after a tiger lunged at him during an animal performance at a local school in San Jose, California.
The circus industry denies that wild animals are acquired and trained through cruel methods, yet circus employees routinely use force and pain to make wild or exotic animals perform upon demand. Wild animals are not domesticated to co-exist in a symbiotic relationship with people; they will not readily volunteer to please people by performing meaningless, repetitive routines in large noisy arenas. Pain and deprivation are blunt instruments used to condition individual wild animals to entertain people. Moreover, given the limited training and experience of circus employees, many circus employees may not be aware of the potentially harmful consequences to the animal of using force repeatedly or of the increased likelihood of a wild or exotic animal acting out or rebelling against such treatment.
As recently as August 23, 2002, a spectator at a performance of the Sterling & Reid Bros. Circus at the Norfolk Scope Arena in Norfolk, Virginia witnessed the circus' trainer viciously beating an elephant. According to this eyewitness account, the trainer beat this elephant on her head with a bullhook until her hide was bloody. This same circus pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges in San Bernardino County, California in 1998 after local humane officials confiscated eight severely emaciated ponies from a Sterling & Reid Bros. circus trailer.
Other eyewitness accounts have described similar instances of animal cruelty. For example, in his sworn affidavit, USDA-licensed exhibitor Craig A. Perry stated that in 1992 he witnessed a trainer brutally beating an elephant named Teaha "with baseball bats, ax handles, and  electrical charges plugged into [an] 110-volt electrical outlet.... [which] was used when the elephant would lunge at anyone near her." Similarly, in his June 13, 2000 testimony before the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, former Ringling Bros. elephant caretaker Tom Rider testified that throughout his years of employment with circuses, he witnessed the reality that elephants "are beaten all the time when they do not perform properly."
Importantly, cruel practices are not limited to the training of wild or exotic animals for public amusement. For example, wild or exotic animals may be acquired through unlawful means, by removing animals from their natural environments. Infant wild or exotic animals often are separated from their mothers for greater ease of training or "breaking" the animals. Moreover, wild or exotic animals are often subjected to brutal cosmetic surgeries, such as declawing or defanging, which forever harm the animals, both physically and mentally.
One of the common responses circuses offer in response to public expressions of concern over the treatment of performing animals is that wild or exotic animals who live in captivity and in the care of circuses, particularly elephants, tend to lead much longer lives than do those animals who actually live in the wild. This argument assumes its own conclusion, given the countless external factors that contribute to the endangerment of animals such as elephants and tigers in the wild, such as human over-exploitation of natural resources and illegal hunting or poaching practices.
Assuming, arguendo, that wild or exotic animals do live longer in captivity, it is worth asking whether such is a positive or negative attribute for the animals, given the procurement and training practices described above. The fact that when not performing, circus or exhibition animals spend many of their days traveling thousands of miles chained in cramped railroad cars or trucks, only serves to underscore the inherent – and unnecessary – cruelty endured by these animals for public amusement.
Together, the inherent danger involved in allowing public contact with wild or exotic animals and the common lack of skill, experience, and training of animal trainers or handlers creates an utterly unacceptable risk to the health and safety of the public, the trainers, and the animals involved.
Legislators at local, state, and federal levels of government have, in fact, acknowledged the substantial public safety risks posed by allowing members of the entertainment industry to place the public into close proximity with wild or exotic animals during circus performances or other exhibitions. In recent years, five cities in California have adopted local ordinances prohibiting the exhibition of all wild or exotic animals. Nine states have banned elephants from close contact with the public.
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