Advocates for Animals

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Blog: Wild animals in Circuses - The curtain Comes Down

Elephant head looking through red curtains

“It’s funny, but I truly never liked the circus…You’ve got animals being tortured, you’ve got death-defying acts, and you’ve got clowns. It’s like a horror show. What’s to like?”

- Tim Burton, Director of Dumbo


In March 2018, MP Trudy Harrison introduced Bill 175 in Parliament[[1]](#_ftn1) which, once passed, will become the “Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2018”.

The Act will prohibit the use of wild animals in circuses in England, and is scheduled to come into force on 1 December 2019.

“Wild animals” is defined as animals that have not been commonly domesticated in Great Britain, and covers both wild-captured animals and captive-bred animals including elephants, tigers, lions, bears, camels, zebras and snakes.


The forthcoming ban follows decades of pressure from the public, animal welfare advocates and scientists, based on research into the welfare of captive animals, as well as documented cases of neglect and cruelty in circuses.

Various prominent organisations including the RSPCA and The British Veterinary Association have unanimously stated that the life of a wild animal is not compatible with that of a travelling circus: “The welfare needs of non-domesticated, wild animals cannot be met within a travelling circus – in terms of housing or being able to express normal behaviour.”[[2]](#_ftn2)

The typical conditions of a travelling circus include: frequent and prolonged travel in confined spaces and/or inappropriate temperatures, high levels of noise (from traffic and human audiences), restricted exercise spaces and/or movement restrictions (eg. due to chaining), inadequate social environments (eg. placing prey-predator species in close proximity, isolating animals which would normally live in groups etc.) and frequent human handling.

Concisely put: “circus animals spend the majority of the day confined in the beast wagon, about 1% performing and the remaining in exercise pens”[[3]](#_ftn3) where their movements are restricted.

Living in captivity means that animals’ ability to express their natural behaviours is limited, for example in terms of hunting/foraging, moving, interacting with their own and other species, mating, sleep patterns – and these restrictions negatively impact the animals’ welfare and overall health. In some captive environments, zoos for example, these impacts can be somewhat mitigated by providing the animals with certain stimuli – but the nature of travelling circuses means that complex environments cannot be created.

Thus, on top of an impoverished captive environment, circus animals also experience circus-specific stressors, as detailed above.

In that context, it is worth noting that “the animal’s inability to avoid or control these stressors is itself a cause of stress” 3. The evidence, therefore, points to the fact that circuses are a particularly stressful type of captive environment for wild animals.

The range of health and welfare issues experienced by wild animals in circuses includes:

  • Abnormal behaviour, eg. pacing and other stereotypic behaviour, self-injury, increased aggression;
  • Reproductive issues, eg. low reproductive rates, infanticide/abandonment, stillbirths;
  • Dietary deficiencies, in terms of quality, frequency or amounts;
  • Mental distress eg. depression;
  • Physical issues, eg. obesity, arthritis, skin and teeth problems;
  • Performance-induced stress, causing gastroenteritis for example; and
  • Captivity-induced stress, which affects overall health including by “altering brain function, reducing breeding potential and lowering life expectancy”. 3

According to an extensive study, “current scientific knowledge suggests that animals suitable for circus life should exhibit low space requirements, simple social structures, low cognitive function, non-specialist ecological requirements and an ability to be transported without adverse welfare effects. None of the wild species exhibited by circuses currently or in the past is close to meeting these criteria”. 3 (author’s emphasis)


The dissemination of such findings in the mainstream news and via animal welfare organisations such as PETA, Animal Defenders International and Born Free Foundation has likely contributed to shifting public opinion, and so too have certain highly-publicised cases of animal cruelty. The cases involving the Chipperfield family in the 1990s [[4]](#ftn4) and Anne the elephant in 2011[[5]](#ftn5) for example, caused public outcry. Today, the vast majority of the British public (around 90%) supports a ban on wild animals in circuses.

From a health and safety perspective, numerous incidents will have also likely played a part in the declining popularity of wild animals in circuses. The media has reported on cases of wild animals mauling their trainers, injuring or killing members of the public, escaping from the circus and carrying infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.


A change in the law is long overdue, given both the scientific evidence that has been available for many years and the fact that countries around the world have already introduced restrictions on using wild animals in circuses.

As at today, 45 countries have introduced restrictions ranging from banning all wild animals (26 countries, as varied as El Salvador, Slovakia and Singapore), banning only wild-captured animals, to banning certain species only.[[6]](#_ftn6)

Ireland and Scotland have introduced bans on using wild animals, and a ban in Wales has recently been announced.

Interestingly, the reasons for which certain countries have introduced bans are in-line with the current consensus in England. For example:

  • Austria’s ban on using wild animals “was a long-standing demand of the animal welfare sector. The impact on the national economy was minimal. The prohibition reflected growing public awareness…and the trend in favour of alternative circuses without wild animals”;
  • Singapore’s ban was introduced “in the interests of public safety and animal welfare. Increasing incidences of mishaps, accidents and abuse…”. [[7]](#_ftn7)


From an animal welfare perspective, many will argue that all animals – whether domesticated or wild – should be banned from circuses on the grounds that circus conditions, involving extensive travel, restricted spaces, loud noises and forced training and performing are only marginally less inadequate for domesticated animals.

Nonetheless, the upcoming ban on using wild animals in the circus is to be welcomed, on animal welfare grounds, on health and safety grounds, and to reflect the low appetite of the British public for such spectacles.

Timing for implementation will become clearer in the coming months, but in any case the Government has promised a ban by 19 January 2020, when the current Regulations (the ”Welfare of Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (England) Regulations 2012”) expire. In the meantime, other jurisdictions continue to press ahead with changes: Madrid, the capital of Spain, has recently announced a ban on using wild animals.

Far from being the glitzy stars of the show, the evidence is clear that wild animals endure a life of misery in the circus and “[no] convincing argument has been made that training and performance are adequate compensation for an impoverished captive environment”3, quite the contrary.

Elsa Garagnon
Solicitor (Independent contributor)



[[3]](#_ftnref3) “A review of the welfare of wild animals in circuses”, Stephen Harris, Graziella Iossa and Carl D. Soulsbury, School of Biological Sciences, Bristol.

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[[4]](#ftnref4) <>



[[7]](#_ftnref7) “It’s time Parliament changed its Act”, Born Free Foundation.

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