A monkey chained to a rocking horse

Circuses & Performing Animals

Born Free is wholly opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses and performance.

Globally, thousands of wild animals are used in circuses and shows and forced to perform demeaning and unnatural tricks to entertain the public. There is overwhelming evidence of compromised animal welfare in the circus environment.

Many wild animals are also used in performances in zoos, travelling shows, hotels, and other venues and events. These activities can seriously impact animal welfare and have become increasingly unjustifiable. This is especially true in zoos, which are now largely expected to prioritise conservation and public education.

Whilst the animal husbandry, training and performance is usually similar to that endured by animals in travelling circuses, animals used in other kinds of performance are often overlooked. For instance, many national governments are keen to review the regulation of wild animal circuses, yet the same attention is not applied to the same animals used in other kinds of performance.

We have rescued and rehomed animals from European circuses, and given them lifetime sanctuary care.

A man stands with his back to camera, raising his arms, with a tiger in front of him, stood on hind legs facing the man

Circuses: What are the Issues?

There are many issues with the use of wild animals in circuses and live performances, from the welfare of the animals and health and safety of humans, to a lack of legislation regulating the industry.

A lion looks out from between the wooden bars of a small cage

Despite difficulty in assessing living conditions, animal management practices and animal behaviour in circuses, it is evident the impact of life in circuses on animal welfare can be extremely serious. By their very nature, travelling circuses operate in such a way as to facilitate ease of frequent transport.

Animals are transported from location to location in cramped conditions, repeatedly loaded and unloaded. Circus animals often contract disease from unhygienic conditions and suffer from deficient diets. They are also commonly deprived of opportunities for species-appropriate social contact with conspecifics (members of the same species), or the ability to perform natural behaviours.

Animals are often subjected to:

  • poor living conditions
  • confinement for long periods
  • lack of privacy
  • restricted movement (through chaining and tethering)
  • extreme temperatures
  • unnatural close contact with people (trainers, performers, and public) and other animals
  • high noise levels
  • abusive training methods.

Animals used in circuses and performance can experience both mental and physical suffering. Captive wild animals are commonly bored and frustrated, often developing unnatural and repetitive, ‘stereotypic’ behaviours in order to cope with a lack of natural stimulation.

Animals used in shows may have been deliberately, and prematurely, separated from their mothers and hand-reared in order to habituate them to human contact and training. Some may have teeth or claws removed in order to limit the risk of injury.

Circus animals in particular may face an uncertain future when they grow too old or can no longer physically perform in shows.

A parrot performs on a tiny bicycle

(c) The Torch (Flickr creative commons)

The way performing animals are trained cannot usually be easily observed. However, many undercover investigations and reports from ex-trainers have revealed evidence of mistreatment or abuse of animals. The training often relies on physical domination and fear, in an attempt to ensure the constant attention and compliance of the animal in front of an audience.

The myth of ‘educational’ shows

Many animal shows, presentations or public interactions at captive facilities are marketed as educational. Yet, these shows often involve animals performing unnatural behaviours, such as sea lions balancing balls on their noses, parrots roller-skating, elephants standing on their heads or painting pictures, monkeys riding bicycles, or tigers jumping through hoops of fire.

Some shows may involve captive animals demonstrating seemingly ‘natural’ behaviours, such as bird of prey and parrot flight displays. However, these animals will require training in order to learn the cue to perform behaviours on demand. Even when animals appear to be performing natural behaviours during a show, it is certainly not natural for animals to perform these behaviours on demand in front of crowds of peoples or loud audiences.

Shows may sometimes provide information about the species involved, but others may be accompanied by loud music or ‘comedic’ activities. Bearing no resemblance to the species’ behaviour in the wild, these presentations cannot be classed as ‘educational’ and can seriously compromise the welfare of the individual animals involved. Some activities may lead to animals developing serious health problems, for example, joint problems might develop in elephants from unnatural weight-bearing tricks, such as standing on their heads or hind legs.

Training techniques

Animals used in shows may be trained to perform tricks or behaviours using a ‘positive reinforcement’ technique, where the animals may receive a reward for performing the desired task, usually food. Others may undergo more abusive methods, relying on fear and domination, to make sure they learn their cue to perform in front of an audience. However, both methods usually involve repetitive actions and training regimes, which do not prioritise the welfare of the animals.

The lifelong impact of subjecting wild animals to this training should not be underestimated.

Three elephants stand behind a thin rope, with two young children reaching out to touch them

Wild animals can be naturally unpredictable and potentially very dangerous to humans or other animals. There is significant potential for disease transmission between animals and people (zoonotic disease). This is especially true when people touch, pet and hold animals, often for a souvenir photograph.

Serious risks of accident or escape occur due to:

  • transportation of performing animals from location to location
  • their temporary and often inadequate housing
  • the close proximity of animals to people during performances
  • the practice of ‘parading’ animals such as circus elephants through towns.

Many animal trainers, keepers, and employees, as well as members of the public, have been injured or killed by animals used in circuses and other performances over the years.

(c) Aaron Gekoski, Born Free

Around the world, an increasing number of countries have implemented full or partial bans on the use of all or some types of animals in circuses. Some countries have complete nationwide bans, whilst others may have regional bans in place. But, there are still many countries that have no legislation to prevent the use of wild animals in circuses.

Travelling circuses in England, Scotland, and Wales are no longer legally allowed to use wild animals in their shows. However, there are still thousands of wild animals legally kept and trained for other performance activities.

In England, mobile exhibits or companies not falling under the terms of the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 are required to be licensed under the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018. In Scotland and Wales, they are required to be registered under the Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925.

However, these pieces of legislation are not fit for purpose and require urgent updating.

In British zoos, the training and use of animals in performance and shows, is covered under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, supplemented by the Standards of Modern Zoo Practice. However, the standards are currently only guidelines and not legally enforceable. Parrots trained to ride bicycles and sea lions to clap their flippers in comedic routines can still be found in many UK zoos.

What changes need to happen to legislation?

Even where specific legislation or licensing may exist, it frequently fails to protect the welfare of animals used in performance and shows. Born Free is calling on the UK government, Scottish Parliament, and Welsh Parliament to introduce a prohibition on the use of wild animals in mobile exhibitions and performance, and for the public and event organisers to pledge their support by boycotting events or facilities which promote this type of entertainment. By reducing the demand for wild animal shows and performances, members of the public can play an important role in reducing the scale of this significant welfare issue.

There are many alternative ways to provide entertainment and engage children and adults to learn without exploiting captive wild animals.

Read our reports

Exhibition or Exploitation? 2021

Wild Animals in Performance, 2016

More information on circuses and performing animals

A group of zebra stand in fluorescent lights in a circus

Circuses in the UK

Born Free has campaigned for decades for a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses in the UK - read about the laws in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Three lions in a wooden wagon, before being rehomed at a Born Free Sanctuary

Circus Rescue

Born Free is proud to have rescued and rehomed several big cats from circuses, providing them lifetime care in spacious, naturalistic sanctuaries.
A man stands with his back to camera, raising his arms, with a tiger in front of him, stood on hind legs facing the man

Report It and Speak Out

If you see wild animals being forced to perform in a circus, you can submit a report via our Raise The Red Flag platform.

Publications and Films

An animated elephant in a circus is stood behind a microphone.

Creature Discomforts

For us, lockdown was temporary. For some animals, it's for life. Help us rescue wild animals from a lifetime of lockdown. Watch the Creature Discomforts video to learn more.
A lion behind bars

The Circus - No Place for Wild Animals

Born Free is convinced the circus is no place for wild animals. It's clear that life in a circus brings compromises and cruelty to wild animals. Watch our short video that explains more about the issues with circuses.
Two monkeys are dressed in clothes and riding bicycles

Wild Animals in Performance

This document offers an insight into the use of wild animals in a variety of different performance situations across the European Union.