12th July 2023

Animals and circuses have a deeply entwined, unpleasant and often dangerous history. Until a ban came into force in 2020, wild animals from elephants and tigers to alligators and snakes were used to entertain paying audiences. Spending most of the year being carted around the country in trailers and wagons, they lived in small temporary enclosures and were forced to perform for cheering crowds. The Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019 has since given these animals their freedom, but what about the ‘domestic’ animals that were not protected by this law? Birds, horses, dogs and llamas are still exploited for profit by circuses around the UK today. Enduring endless hours on the road, these animals are denied the natural freedom and space that they deserve and desperately need. 

Our investigator Florence Green attended a performance of Giffords Circus this year to monitor the treatment of their animals. Here is what they discovered:

The atmosphere was electric inside the circus tent. Voices babbling excitedly, families relishing in the anticipation of the performance they were about to witness. As the resident clown opened the show, laughter filled the beautiful red and orange canvas big top, applause encouraging in the first acrobatic act. The pure talent, skill and bravery of the performers as they flew through the air was breath-taking. The audience drank in the adrenaline – completely engaged.

But when it was time for the pony act, everything shifted. The music became ‘cute’ and ‘jaunty’, almost baby-ish, and the audience ‘ahhh-ed’ as 4 small ponies were led out into the ring. Their act lasted around 15 minutes, and consisted mainly of them repetitively running in circles, then coming to stand next to their trainer whilst the audience clapped.

As someone who has years of experience being around horses, I could immediately feel their stress. I could see straight away that, in direct contrast to their paying audience, they were not happy at all. Their heads were down, ears pinned back, eyes narrow and fixed forward to the ground in front of them as they moved. The muscles in their facial crests and mouths were tense, sending the very clear visible message that they were far from having a good time. I watched as their ‘handler’ sent them around the ring, all the time focusing on the smallest pony of the four. I could see that this particular individual was struggling more than the others, and the trainer saw it too, barking commands at them as they went. Twice, this pony flattened their ears even more, and went to bite one of the others. The audience noticed the first time, and a worried intake of breath travelled along the benches. Perhaps we are aware that these animals performing for our entertainment may not be enjoying themselves? If we know this, or even suspect it, how does that make us feel? Can we enjoy this part of the show as much as the other acts, those performed by willing humans?

The ponies’ act reached a crescendo when they were all made to do a trick; lying down, rolling over, standing with two feet on the side of the ring, or sitting down in a very unnatural manner. The crowd cheered and clapped. Why do we find this so entertaining to witness? We are watching an animal do something that they do not want to do, that they would not do if we had not trained them to… something that we are orchestrating from our position of dominance.

With the loud music, bright lights and hundreds of watching eyes, it is not surprising that most animals would feel fear and panic. You might expect to see wide, darting eyes, flared nostrils, raised heads looking for escape routes. But what these ponies were displaying was anger. Anger from resentment , from frustration, and from the pressure of repetitive performances and submission. As they left the stage, I wished that they were being led to huge, open fields. To have their constricting bridles, painful metal bits and headwear taken from their bodies, and given their freedom to gallop and buck and roam as far as they pleased. Horses are herd animals, and prey animals. Despite the vast history of human domestication, they have never lost their strong, instinctual needs to find safety in the herd, to always be hyper-aware of the stimulus in their surroundings, and to flee if they feel threatened. The life of the circus horse must be tough for these individuals. Later, I followed them to their trailer. Small, individual boxed stalls inside a white tent was their home for the week. A tiny taped area of grass was their only freedom between shows.

These ponies are just four of the dozens of animals still being used as entertainment in circuses today in the UK. As a nation of animal-lovers, we stood up for what is right and paved the way for a ban on using wild animals in these cruel performances. But the fact is, these ponies are every bit as exploited as the tigers, lions, elephants and zebras were before the ban in 2020. So why stop here? Let’s continue to speak out, until ALL animals are free from this enforced labour.

If you’d like to help to stop the use of animals in circuses around the UK, there are ways that you can get involved:

- If there is an event local to you, report it to us, and make a complaint to the landowners.

- Voice your concerns loudly – take part in online actions and social media conversations. We can help you to organise a  demonstration outside a circus and arm you with flyers and posters. Many people visiting the circus won’t be aware that there will be animals present, and may choose to not attend after learning of the cruelty involved.

- Going to see the circus can be an incredible and awe-inspiring experience, and there are many that do not exploit animals. You could choose to support the outstandingly-talented Circus Cortex, or the inspiring contemporary circus company Upswing. With the breadth of human talent out there, we have no reason at all to be cruel to animals. 

You can find more about why we are continuing the fight for animals in circuses and how they suffer here!

​No animal should suffer for entertainment!