Animals in Amusement: Fun for us, hell for them…

Sofia Kastrinou

It is very common for animals to be used as attractions and as means for entertainment. For hundreds of years, people have visited zoos, attended circuses, bullfights, water parks, and other sites where animals are trained to amuse. But if we take a closer look, we will realize that we spend huge amounts of money to support an industry that captures and tortures living creatures.

Some History

In order to understand the desire of crowds to observe captive animals at theme parks and enjoy them performing tricks, we need to trace the roots of this phenomenon. 

Even in ancient times, different people from different places all over the world captured animals. Excavations in Macedonia around 2000 BC revealed traces which prove that lions were trapped and kept in cages by ancient Greeks. It is also known that ancient Greeks were using animals for educational purposes, and as guinea pigs for medical experiments.

In many areas, such as Rome, Egypt and China, emperors were trying to collect as many exotic and wild animals as possible (giraffes, bears, elephants etc.), as a display of wealth and power. Other countries were giving them away as a sign of alliance.

Romans also created arenas where they forced  lions to attack individuals in the arena. These individuals could be volunteer gladiators or Christians that were punished because of their religion. These fights did not end unless the lion or the fighter was dead. One way or another, an animal was suffering for the amusement of the rulers and wealthy citizens. 

In the Middle Ages, there was an expansion of this phenomenon and more animal related events appeared such as bullfights and cockfighting. During these times, the first “menageries” were created. Menageries are exhibitions of exotic animals, kept in cages, for people to observe. They became very popular during this period and evolved into what we now know as modern circuses. In the United States, animals are exhibited in separate tents and people pass by them before entering the central stage. Animals such as elephants, llamas, and zebras, enclosed in carriages, form a line around a tent. On occasion, some circuses are able to obtain rare species like rhinos and giraffes. Even today, at some European circuses (e.g. Knie circus) menageries are still a feature. 

When people realized how profitable these attractions were, they came up with the idea to travel all over the world and exhibit them to hundreds of people. The first travelling circuses were gradually established.

Figure 1: Travelling “menageries” in Victorian era

 The first circus was created in 1768 in England by a horse rider, Philip Astley, a former sergeant who trained horses. It started as a small horse show, but became very popular and Astley enriched the show with different kinds of performances. He also included the exhibition of a single elephant specimen. Elephants were considered for many years from the circus managers, as the most profitable animals. The first circus in the United States was established in 1793 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

In the 1800s circus workers started to train animals in order to give extraordinary performances. An example is the French trainer, Henri Martin who entered the cage of a tiger in 1831. He was followed by his American colleague Isaac Van Amburgh who was the first man to stick his head inside the open mouth of a lion.

Animal in circuses

One of the most profitable industries that is mostly based on animal performances, is the circus industry. People all over the world have paid to enjoy a good animal performance. But a relevant question is how many of these people have ever thought of how the animals are trained to perform so remarkably. 

Most of the animals that perform at the circuses are bred in captivity. Their trainers force them to conduct very uncomfortable tricks by abusing them. They very often use equipment such as muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks to cause them pain and threaten them so that they will suffer continuously if they do not obey. The tricks themselves also make animals suffer. For example, they make elephants stand on their head, or tigers, who are normally afraid of fire, jump through fire hoops. 

Figure 2: Tiger jumps through a fire hoop

Even in circuses where animals are treated with more respect and dignity, the latter spend most of their lives in cages. According to PAWS, a circus animal spends approximately 96% of its life in a cage. They are not capable of doing activities that they would do in their natural habitats, such as hunting or socializing. They, in most cases, behave abnormally (e.g. continuous pacing), fall into depression, and even harm themselves.

At travelling circuses, animals are transferred from place to place and travel for hours, even days, under terrible conditions that can exhaust them. An elephant named Heather died from heat exhaustion, inside a truck, while travelling.

A lot of incidents of abnormal, aggressive behavior from circus animals have been recorded. Because of their mistreatment, circus animals have hurt their handlers, and even the audience, in their attempt to escape. There are many examples of elephants that broke their chains, escaped from their trainers, hurt people from the audience or even ran in the streets destroying buildings and causing severe injuries to people walking. For example, in 2014, during the Moolah Shrine Circus show in Missouri, three elephants were stressed because of the circus noise. They managed to escape from their handlers and destroy a circus area and plenty of cars in the parking lot. 

Animals in zoos and water parks

Figure 3: Elephants at Memphis zoo, USA

There are contradictory opinions about animals in zoos and water parks. Some people believe that the establishment of zoos contribute, in many cases, to the rescue of injured animals. It is also claimed that they live in very good conditions, they are not mistreated, and some endangered species are protected.

Others suggest the negative impact that captivity could have on the behavior of animals. When wild terrestrial or aquatic  animals do not have adequate space to swim, hunt, or run they become stressed, confused and very often depressed. Dolphins and orcas are forced to spend a lot of time on the surface performing tricks, when in their normal life they swim at the bottom of the sea most of the time.

Figure 4: Dolphins performing tricks at Loro Park in Tenerife, Spain

There are also many accidents that have happened at these kinds of parks that have resulted in people getting fatally injured. In 2016, a gorilla named Haramble was shot because he was dragging a boy that accidentally fell into Haramble’s cage. In 2010, Tilly, a killer Orca, murdered her trainer. This was the third death that Tilly was responsible for. Tilly was captured when he was two years old and spent his entire life in captivity. His instinct was suppressed during the years, and thus, it was expressed intensively in individual cases. 

What changes have been made

Many inspections have occurred during the past few years by animal welfare organizations. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has inspected many famous circuses. In 2009, a video of PETA revealed the abuse of elephants and tigers at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus ceased operations eight years later. In 2016, a Four-Paw mission rescued 15 animals from a zoo in Palestine. Animals had not been fed for days and they were slowly dying. Fortunately, the zoo closed after this incident.

New Jersey and Hawaii were the first U.S. states that forbade the exploitation of exotic animals at circuses. Florida followed in their footsteps and in 2016 banned the usage of bullhooks at circuses. A few years later, the former banned the use of exotic animals at circuses in general. Nowadays, the performance of animals in circuses has been forbidden or restricted in 22 states in the U.S. and in 44 countries globally. 

The past few years, many circuses have been using animal-free alternatives (holograms, animal props) in order to create spectacular animal shows.

Figure 5: Tiger prop used for a performance at Cirque de Soleil

There are still a lot of things that must be improved or changed and many non-profit organizations and animal rights activists are fighting to put an end to the living hell that animals have endured. Thankfully, many changes have already occurred and the animal entertainment industry is slowly pivoting, and in some cases completely ceasing. Animals are starting to be given the opportunity to live out their lives in more natural environments and with less mistreatment at the hands of the entertainment industry.  Keep informed by following Fanimal, as well as animal welfare organizations who specialize in animals in entertainment: World Animal Protection and Performing Animal Welfare Society, for example, and never patronize circuses and other businesses who offer animals as entertainment. 

Sources: Britannica,, PAWS, PETA, Sentient Media, The Torch