Thursday, June 3rd 2010  

Transport & Life on the Road

Touring circuses may cover thousands of miles a year, carrying animals from site to site in transporters and cages on the backs of lorries known as beast wagons. Moving location each week means they spend most of the year in temporary accommodation.

The animals may be confined for hours, even days, in their travelling cages, with their only respite being either limited time in an exercise cage, being rehearsed, or performing. It is impossible for a travelling menagerie to provide circus animals with the facilities they need.

Yet travelling circuses in the UK have recently included such diverse animals as lions, tigers, dogs, alligators, snakes, camels, llamas, parrots, ducks, budgerigars, horses and elephants. In other European countries you can find polar bears, rhinos and hippos.

In the wild, elephants are extremely social, living in large groups or herds and travel on average 25kms per day. In the circus, they spend most of each day chained by a front and a hind leg, standing on a wooden or metal board in a tent. The chains on their legs mean they can only shuffle a pace or two backwards or forwards. If they are lucky, they will occasionally have access to a grassed electric fenced enclosure, but this will depend on the circus site. Thus circus elephants spend almost their entire day barely able to move, let alone being able to perform natural behaviours such as foraging, bathing, travelling and socialising. This may create stress and frustration and lead to abnormal behaviours such as rocking, swaying and nodding.

A Freedom for Animals undercover investigation in 2009 found elephants at the Great British Circus were chained for up to 11 hours a day.

Big cats, most commonly lions and tigers, live in beast wagons. Studies have shown that these animals spend most of the day in these small mobile cages. Some may be provided with ‘exercise’ cages, but often these are only slightly larger than the beast wagon itself, and they are only likely to have access at certain times of day.

These are predators, designed to hunt. But their natural instincts and behaviours are frustrated by the circus. Consequently, lions and tigers may repeatedly pace backwards and forwards in their beastwagon.

It is not just the wild animals that are frustrated and severely confined.

Horses and ponies are gregarious animals – extremely social. After being unloaded from their horse boxes or transporters they are often confined in tents, separated from their companions by stalls, which do not allow socialising or mutual grooming. Often horse will be tethered or kept in tiny pens for the entire time they are not performing or rehearsing. If exercise enclosures are provided, these are generally very small – it is unlikely a horse would gallop or really exercise in one. Behavioural abnormalities have been observed in circus horses.

Although, performing dogs could be kept as pets, living with a presenter, they are often kept in cages on tour or tied up when they are not performing.


Training is very secretive; animals undergo training behind closed doors. There have been cases where brutal training methods have come to light. The most recent, and perhaps most notorious, was that of Mary Chipperfield.

The nature of training circus animals is revealed by the tools of the trade. Whips are seen in the ring but the use of screws hidden in the base of walking sticks, spikes concealed in tasselled sticks and hotshots or electric shock devices has been documented.

A Freedom for Animals investigator working at the Great British Circus in 2009 filmed the elephant trainer using a spiked goad on an elephant during the show. The trainer was careful to hide this from the audience by holding it alongside his arm.

In 2009, Animal Defenders International (ADI) secured footage from a camera concealed inside the elephant tent of the Great British Circus which shows a staggeringly high level of casual violence in just a few days of observations. Incidences include elephants being hit in the face with a metal elephant hook, a broom and a pitchfork, a worker cruelly twisting an elephant’s tail, and the frightened animals retreating and crying out when struck or hooked.

Some ex animal trainers or keepers have spoken out, to expose the cruel methods used to break and train circus animals. Former elephant handler Sam Haddock, who worked in the industry from 1976 until 2005, revealed what circuses try so hard to keep hidden.

Before his wife died in 2007 she asked him to promise to “do the right thing” in exposing the cruelty he not only witnessed, but took part in. Haddock’s statement admits his own part in the abuse of elephants: the use of an electric prod on an elephant in 1997 (saying he “fried him for about ten minutes”) and the beating of another elephant with a bullhook for 15 minutes the following year.

Sam Haddock’s statement discusses the separation of mother and calf: “When pulling 18-24-month-old babies, the mother is chained against the wall by all four legs. Usually there’s 6 or 7 staff that go in to pull the baby rodeo style. … Some mothers scream more than others while watching their babies being roped. … The relationship with their mother ends.”

Another ex circus employee related how a little brown bear was treated.

She was a sweet little innocent brown bear who never hurt anyone… but sometimes she had trouble balancing on the high wire. She was then beaten with long metal rods until she was screaming and bloody. She became so neurotic that she would beat her head against her small cage. She finally died

Domestic animals undergo the same questionable training methods and perform unnatural acts. Horses are trained to walk backwards on their hind legs with tight reins forcing the neck into a supposedly attractive, artificial position.


The animals in circuses are there purely for entertainment, and the routines have changed little since the nineteenth century. In circuses, the audience can still see beautiful majestic animals like elephants ridiculed by their trainers, or big cats reduced to cowardly looking creatures by the cracking whip of the ‘powerful’ lion tamer.

Some circuses claim to be educational but there is no educational value in seeing such magnificent animals reduced to performing tricks. The idea of publicly humiliating an animal to prove that ‘Man’ is capable of this kind of dominance is not fun. Children should be taught to respect animals – circuses teach the opposite.

Circuses also claim to be involved in conservation, yet no animals from circuses have ever been released to the wild. Far from the suggested aim of conservation, most circus elephants have been taken from the wild. African elephants calves are the product of culls (mass slaughters of elephant families) – the circus often says that they have saved them, giving the impression that their workers ran around dodging bullets to rescue them, when in fact they have merely paid a dealer. This buying of cull orphans often makes money for those involved in this slaughter.


Research Fellow in Moral Philosophy, Dr Elisa Aaltola, said: “Taking all these considerations – welfare, value, and understandings of animals – into account forces us to acknowledge that animal circuses lack moral justification. They infringe on the welfare of animals, they do not take into account basic moral considerations, and they present a misleading understanding of animals. Legislation ought to reflect these considerations, and animal circuses ought to be banned.”

Scientific Research

Researchers from the University of Bristol have concluded that circuses fail to provide some of the most basic welfare needs of wild animals, such as space and social groups. They also found that scientific literature and other data were scarce, even to the extent that the origin of most animals in circuses and precise numbers kept are unknown.

The authors found that there was no evidence to suggest that the needs of wild animals can be met in circuses as “neither natural environment nor much natural behaviour can be recreated”.

Despite claims by circuses that training and performing is a source of enrichment, this makes up just 1-9% of the day for animals and performances in particular can cause severe stress because of the noise, lights and audiences. The remaining time is spent in housing or exercise pens.


Circuses are exempt from the Dangerous Wild Animal Act, and their very nature of always being on the move means there is always a risk of escape. It is relatively common for animals like camels, pigs, and goats to get loose. There have also been escapes by lions and tigers.

In July 2006, a wallaby from Circus Sydney escaped as the circus was about to leave Co Cork, Ireland. The circus left without him, moving on to Wexford before he was found almost a week later.

In 2004, three camels escaped from a circus and disrupted drivers by wandering down a busy dual carriageway in Limerick, Ireland.

In 2003, an elephant named Anne escaped from Bobby Roberts Super Circus in Ayr, Scotland. She escaped from her holding pen and was chased through the streets before eventually being recaptured.

It’s legal for a circus to beat an elephant with an iron bar

From 1996 to 1998, the Animal Defenders undertook an extensive undercover study of UK animal circuses, with their Field Officers taking jobs with circuses. Video footage showed animals being prodded and hit with all manner of weapons. The investigation culminated in convictions for cruelty at Mary Chipperfield Promotions of Mary Cawley (nee Chipperfield), her husband Roger Cawley, and their elephant keeper Stephen Gills.

Gills was jailed for four months because of his sustained attacks on the elephants. Using iron bars and pitchforks he would sometimes rain down as many as 30 frenzied blows on the faces of the chained animals. Mary Cawley was convicted on twelve counts of cruelty to an infant chimpanzee called Trudy that she kicked and thrashed with a riding crop. Roger Cawley was convicted of one count of cruelty to a sick elephant called Flora. Cawley claimed he was exercising her because she was sick, but whipped her to make her go faster and faster. The Cawleys were fined but not banned from keeping animals.

But what was equally significant was what they weren’t convicted of. This defines the level of brutality permitted in animal circuses.

Mary Cawley was charged with cruelty to a camel. To make her move to the training ring, the camel was hit with reins, kicked, had her tail twisted, and repeatedly hit with a broomhandle. In the ring camels were struck about the body and even the face. Cawley was found not guilty of cruelty on the grounds that making the animal perform tricks is legal, therefore it is legal to use the force necessary to meet this goal. The magistrate noted, ‘The camels were being trained in the ring. It’s not for us to judge if that’s right – it is legal’.

Likewise, the day before the whipping he was convicted of, Roger Cawley moved the sick elephant Flora to the training ring. Animal Defenders’ film shows that Flora, who had collapsed the previous day and had boils about her body was unwilling and stopped. Gills pulled her and Charles Chipperfield hit her across the back with a fibre glass rod. Then Cawley joined in using a metal bar. Holding this in both hands, he brought it behind his head to hit Flora’s back hard several times. Flora’s legs buckled a little under the multiple blows, then she moved on. Again, this was not deemed cruelty because they were trying to force her to do something.

It also worth noting how some of the circus world viewed the Cawley’s actions. David Hibling, at the time artistic director for Zippo’s Circus was a defence witness for Mary Cawley. He was cross examined by the prosecution about the three Animal Defenders’ videos of assaults on the chimp Trudy. Did Hibling ‘See anything which would constitute cruelty?’ Hibling replied unequivocally, ‘No’. Asked, ‘Would you do what Mary Cawley did?’ Hibling replied ‘Yes’. ‘On the videos [relating to Mary and Roger Cawley, not Gills] did you see anything cruel?’ Hibling again said ‘No’. Fortunately, the magistrate did not share Hibling’s views.

A relic of the not so distant past…

Despite repeated claims that they are traditional and part of our heritage, circuses in their current form, really only date from the 19th century.

The ‘father of the modern circus’, is considered to be English born Phillip Astley who demonstrated equestrian and acrobatic skills in a ringed enclosure in London in the 18th century. This was the first time, that the now familiar circus ring was first seen in England. And, although the circus industry claims that wild animals have always been an integral part of the show, the first elephant was not seen in a circus until the 19th century.

Before animals were exhibited, travelling shows were likely to be exhibiting people with physical abnormalities, regarded at the time ‘freaks of nature’. Phineas Taylor Barnum, a name synonymous with the circus world, was also associated with this practice. A reprehensible past, quite rightly consigned to history.

Performing animals can be traced back to the Roman Empire. Animals and people were slaughtered in their thousands in the arenas. Some animals were trained to do degrading tricks, designed to ridicule the animal, with human superiority over nature being an important element of the Roman culture. But the performing animals were little more than light relief for the massacres on show. Certainly, no one would wish to revive or preserve the torture and humiliation of the amphitheatres for the sake of tradition.

Little more than a hundred years ago, the travelling circus revived part of this humiliating spectacle. Today we see the lions cowed before their ‘tamers’, and performing elephants and bears reduced to caricatures. The animal circus is an anachronistic relic of the past.

It seems hard to believe that we have entered this new millenium with animal circuses still touring.


These incidents all took place in the UK or Ireland:

In 2009, a horse fell in the ring at Bobby Roberts Super Circus. According to eyewitnesses, two horses collided when running quickly around the small ring. Once up, the horse continued the performance instead of being relieved to check he was ok.

In 2007, the co-owner of Circus Sydney was prosecuted after her dog attacked a child. The court heard that the dog, a three-foot tall cross between a Rottweiler and a German Shepherd, described as aggressive by a dog warden, chased a group of children. The dog jumped on one of the children, a seven year-old-boy, and he “was generally mauled” according to a witness. There was a tooth mark on the boy’s elbow along with lacerations to his face.

In 2005, a macaque monkey bit a five-year-old girl at a circus in County Kerry, Ireland. Following media coverage, it transpired that the same monkey had bitten three other audience members on different occasions that year.

In 2005, a circus worker was gored and trampled by a 26-year-old elephant in Tramore, Ireland.

Legacy of deaths

Animals rarely make it out of circuses alive and into a sanctuary. Many die at an early age.

In 2007 a 19-year-old female elephant, Kenya, died under mysterious circumstances at Circus Sydney in Northern Ireland. Born in the wild in Zimbabwe, she lived alone, chained and transported from town to town.

Also in 2007, Ming, the last bear in a UK circus (Peter Jolly’s Circus), died. In her early days as a circus ‘performer’ Ming apparently used to ride a motorbike. In more recent years her act consisted of nothing more than being paraded around the circus ring, by a lead attached to a neck collar. The circus refused to comment on her death.

During the winter of 2000/2001, elephants Beverley and Janie died at Bobby Roberts Circus. Once more, there was no comment from the circus or official investigation into the deaths. This left the circus with just one elephant, Anne. Born in Sri Lanka she has been transported with the circus for over 50 years despite her arthritis.