The Ethologist Jordi Casamitjana explains why all the bans on using wild animals in circuses should be extended to domestic animals as well
It happened on two occasions.
During my professional life as an animal protectionist, on two occasions I have given oral testimony before a parliament during a debate on banning animals in circuses. The first time was in Catalonia in 2014 when I was the Campaigns and Enforcement Manager of the International Fund for Animal Welfare UK — although my testimony was as an independent Ethologist. The second time was in England in 2019 when I was the Senior Campaigns Manager of PETA UK. The outcome of both interventions was positive. Both countries banned the use of wild animals in circuses.
It was positive, but not good enough. Why? Because, in the first case, I was trying to persuade the Catalan parliamentarians that they should ban the use of any animal in circuses (not just wild animals), and in the second case, although the bill from the start would only consider wild animals, we wanted more.
At the time of writing this article, at least 29 nations have banned the use of wild animals in circuses, and this type of ban is spreading so quickly, that I expect this number would be much higher in a few years (the last ban I heard about was in the Basque Country). However, as far as I know, only six nations banned the use of any animal (domestic and wild). These are Bolivia (2009), Bosnia Herzegovina (2009), Greece (2012), Cyprus (2013), Malta (2014), and Guatemala (2017).
Is there any justification for this discrepancy? Do domestic animals suffer less in circuses than wild animals do? Do politicians care more about wild animals than domestic animals? Is there a solid case to campaign for all circus animal bans to be extended to all animals?
In this article, I answer these questions.
Banning Animals in Circuses
When I was first asked to be a witness before a Parliament on this issue, it was because I was an Ethologist (an expert on animal behaviour). A few years earlier, I had also given testimony as an ethologist on another successful ban, the ban of bullfighting in Catalonia, so I guess politicians (and the local animal protection groups) trusted my professional judgement.
On 22nd of October 2014, after I had travelled to Barcelona a few days earlier from my residence in London, I gave my testimony in front of the Parliamentary Commission of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, Food and Environment of the Catalan Parliament. I read a prepared statement in Catalan — my mother tongue, as I grew up there — and then I responded to the specific questions several MPs asked me. You can watch my entire intervention (including the questions and answers) in this subtitled video, but I will show the entire English version of my written statement in this article:
After having watched the video again, I realised that everything I said is still relevant and accurate, so I did not need to re-write it. I simply need to show it here in more digestible chunks, so this is what I will do. The first part of my speech sets up what I was planning to talk about:
“I have been asked to give my opinion about whether the use of animals in circuses’ performances should be prohibited, on the basis that it compromises their welfare beyond what is acceptable in today’s standards. And I have been asked this based on my knowledge of Ethology and animal welfare, and as an independent expert on the matter.
In order to give such an opinion, I would like to contextualise the question, so we all agree on its meaning. I have divided the question into five sub-questions to answer:
- What are circuses?
- What are today’s acceptable animal welfare standards?
- Which types of animals are we talking about?
- Are there any components of the use of animals by circuses that could compromise the animals’ welfare?
- Are there any indicators suggesting that indeed such welfare is compromised often?
Let’s answer these questions one by one.
Finding a definition of circuses that everyone agrees with, may not be an easy task, but most people know what a circus is “when they see it”, so this point should not be too controversial. My preferred definition is: ‘An itinerant public entertainment consisting typically of a variety of performances by acrobats, clowns, and other entertainers, performed typically in a temporary large tent; and the travelling company that performs such shows in a series of different places.’ The key elements of this definition are ‘entertainment’, ‘public performance’, and their ‘itinerant’ or ‘travelling’ nature. This is important because when assessing whether to ban an activity the ‘purpose’ of such activity is crucial. In this case, the purpose is pure ‘entertainment’, and I do not believe anyone would contest this.
This leads us nicely to the second question about the ‘acceptable’ animal welfare standards, because, although they may be standards that are set by scientists and experts, whether they are acceptable or not is dictated by the prevalent principles of the society upholding them — and in our case, we are talking about modern 21st-century society. We know that most animal welfare legislation in the world has been based on the ‘five freedoms’ of animal welfare (initially coined in Britain in the Brambell Report in 1965) which I am sure would have been mentioned already in this debate. These are the following:
- Freedom from Hunger and Thirst — by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
- Freedom from Discomfort — by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
- Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease — by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
- Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour — by providing sufficient space, proper facilities, and the company of the animal’s own kind.
- Freedom from Fear and Distress — by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
These five freedoms were adopted by the ‘World Organisation for Animal Health’ in 2004, are an integral part of the principles of animal welfare of the EU, and I believe that the Catalan animal protection legislation is also based on them. However, the extent to which they are applied changes from animal issue to animal issue, since in some cases the purpose of an action that compromises animal welfare may be such that it is used to justify a practice — and the suffering caused is then deemed ‘necessary suffering’. This is the case, for example, of the suffering caused to animals used in scientific experiments, which some people believe is ‘necessary’. However, when the purpose is ‘entertainment’, the five principles should be used in full in their most strict sense, since, in a modern 21st-Century’s society, no suffering is considered acceptable in the name of entertainment.”
The Animals Kept Captive in Circuses
In my speech, I carried on talking about the different types of animals that can be found in circuses:
“As far as the types of animals used in circuses are concerned, although it may look that many types are used, considering all the species that exist, only a few have been traditionally used. Mostly, big cats (such as lions or tigers), bears, elephants, primates, sea lions, camels, llamas, horses, dogs, and cats. However, these animals can be divided into two groups: wild animals and domestic animals.
Whilst it is true that some of the animals in circuses are domestic animals (animals that have been selectively bred by humans for companionship, food, fibre or work), the key thing to consider is whether domestic animals are treated differently than wild animals, and whether the fact animals are domesticated implies that they are less likely to suffer in a circus. Therefore, if this is true, it could make the distinction between the two justifiable from a legal point of view.
In my opinion, it is not, because I believe that most domestic animals, if they are also circus performers, are likely to be treated as the wild animals in circuses (they all need to be fed and cared for, they all need to travel, they all need to be trained to perform ‘tricks’ and particular behaviours — often ‘unnatural’ behaviours — they all need to perform in public, they all need to be restrained to prevent their escape, and they all require the five freedoms to meet their welfare needs). And I believe that domestic animals, although they may be easier to train — and in some cases, they may be already tamed and socialised — can still suffer and their welfare needs may still not be met in the conditions of a travelling circus. I will elaborate a bit more about this further along.”
What People Do to Animals in Circuses
I continued talking about what circus operators and performers do to the animals they exploit for profit, both wild and domestic:
“Going into the next question regarding components of the use of animals in circuses that could lead to animal welfare problems, there are indeed several:
- Public exposure
Training an animal to perform tasks that are basically ‘unnatural’ behaviours for the animal (and if the animals do not perform ‘tricks’ and/or unusual behaviours their performance would not be considered entertaining enough) may involve the use of aversive techniques that cause the animal pain, fear and distress, in breach of two of the five freedoms. Instruments such as whips or rods specifically designed to inflict either pain or fear are often used in training (even if they may be banned in some countries), and although, theoretically, it may be possible to train an animal using benign techniques instead of adverse ones, the truth is that circuses are ‘traditional’ enterprises often run by families which have used the same methods for generations — and most traditional animal training methods in circuses are based on ‘extreme coercion.’
Even if benign methods may still be used (such as giving a treat after a trick) they are often combined with adverse methods (giving treats if the right action is performed at the same time that giving a punishment if it is not), so the absence of witnessing any punishment during a performance does not imply that punishment was not used during the training, especially since such training occurs away from the public (or any official inspector).
There is no circus with animals in the world that does not need to transport animals from one place to another, and any transport may be a source of stress and discomfort to the animals. Factors such as the length of the trip, the need for physical restriction, the severe confinement, the size of the container, crowding, the movement during transport, the temperature and other environmental conditions, the isolation and separations, etc. are all potential causes of animal welfare problems, which are difficult to minimise in the case of circuses where travelling is so constant and common. Therefore, due to its frequency and distances, circus animals may well be more at risk of travelling-related animal welfare problems than other animals used by humans.
The accommodation circus animals are kept in does vary, but because it is always ‘temporary’ due to the travelling nature of circuses, is bound to be more likely to cause animal welfare problems, in breach of the second freedom. In some cases, circuses have ‘winter quarters’ where the animals are kept during the low-performing season, but these often are in different countries from where the animals are performing, which makes it very difficult for an authority to guarantee that animals due to perform in its jurisdiction have been kept properly before entering its territory. Due to the need for travelling and the limited space for a circus tent, the size of the animals’ accommodation is likely to be too small and too exposed to the elements to meet their needs.
Husbandry techniques depend on the keepers’ knowledge and attitude, but when such ‘carers’ are often the ‘trainers’, the performance requirements are likely to outweigh the animals’ needs (non-performing animals in circuses cost money, so there will be pressure to making them perform even if the animals are not up to it), and it is likely the animals will pay for this. We should not forget that circuses’ revenue is entirely dependent on the success of their performances, so if the business is not going well (and let’s face it, circuses are less popular these days, especially if they use animals), it is likely that corners will be cut and the animals will be the first to suffer for it (deficient nutrition, poorer health care, etc.).
Also, the physical limitations of the available accommodation are going to be a key factor in the standards of husbandry. For some animals, the husbandry in circuses would always be deficient. Aquatic animals such as sea lions need a lot of water to be able to swim, social animals like elephants need the company of other elephants in stable social groups, predators like big cats need to be able to hunt, etc., etc.
The performance itself may be a cause of animal welfare problems for two main reasons. Firstly, because animals are often forced to perform unnatural behaviours their bodies are not designed to cope with, and acute or chronic injuries may occur — especially if the animals have a very tight and long performance schedule. For instance, animals standing on two legs other than four (or sometimes just one) are likely to suffer too much strain on their joints — which may lead to injury.
Secondly, the animals are often forced to perform through extreme coercion, and the tools used to inflict pain and fear during training are often also used during the performances. Sometimes, whips or rods are carried by the trainer during the performance but not used much because the animals are already fearful of them from their experience in the past, which means that the performance is given under a state of fear and discomfort that breaches the animals’ welfare freedoms.
Finally, circus performances often take place in a circular arena surrounded by the public, which often behaves very loudly and may be quite intimidating and stressful for animals, especially if they are under pressure to perform — to either avoid a punishment or to be fed — and they have no place to hide or flee.”
Evidence of Animal Suffering in Circuses
The next section of my speech deals with the evidence we had at that time on animals suffering in circuses:
“Therefore, there are multiple components in the life of circus animals that may lead to animal suffering and compromise the animals’ welfare requirements. But this is the theory. Does this happen in practice? This leads us to the last question which is, ‘are there any indicators suggesting that indeed such welfare is compromised often?’ To answer this, investigations and research are needed, but happily, in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, we already have plenty of results from them.
There have been numerous undercover investigations on the way circus animals are treated that have exposed animal abuse and human cruelty — which on several occasions have led to convictions. The 1996-98 undercover investigation of UK animal circuses by Animal Defenders International (ADI) found that day-to-day violence towards animals in the circus industry was both accepted and commonplace. Violence was used both during training sessions and to move animals about whilst feeding, cleaning, etc. Subsequent undercover investigations exposing similar practices show that not much has changed since. Surveillance footage of the use of severe punishment and abuse during circus animal training or handling is available, and since most training will always happen behind closed doors without witnesses, it would be unreasonable to believe that the cases exposed were the only cases when abuse took place.
There has been already official research on the animal welfare problems of circuses, such as the one commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality of the Netherlands in 2008. This concluded, among other things, that 71% of the observed animals had medical problems, an average enclosure for tigers was only 5 m2, and that elephants were shackled in chains for an average of 17 hours a day.
Regarding transport, an examination of a random sample of the published schedules of eight UK animal circuses found their average stop was 8 days. Animals are usually loaded onto transporters after the final show and may not be unloaded until the site is fully prepared at the next town. At worst, this can mean that the animals are shut away in a wagon for a whole day each week.
ADI research has found that severe confinement is not limited to any particular species: horses and ponies spent up to 96% of their day tied with short ropes limiting their movement, often facing a wall; tigers and lions spent 75-99% of their time in small cages, kept on the back of lorries/trucks; and elephants spent 70-98% of their time chained to the ground by two legs.
There have been numerous reports of circus animals displaying abnormal behaviours, which we call ‘stereotypic behaviours‘(repetitive, pointless movements such as rocking, pacing or head bobbing), which are good indicators that the animals are suffering the negative consequences of their captive life.
Therefore, there is plenty of evidence that circus animals not only are at constant risk to suffer welfare problems, but many are indeed suffering them. But, how many? Are we talking about the majority? It is difficult to tell, but a practice that causes harm does not need to cause it in the majority of occurrences to justify banning it. Two principles can be applied that may justify a ban without proof that the damage happens in most cases: the ‘principle of proportionality’ and the ‘precautionary principle’. If the ‘harm’ is severe enough — and I would say that a sentient being suffering pain, fear, and distress ‘for life’ for entertainment purposes is — it would be entirely justifiable to take drastic measures to stop it. And if there is uncertainty about how common the harm is, it is sensible to take the ‘precaution’ to assume that it happens more often than it is known to happen.
The itinerant nature of the circuses, constantly moving from one jurisdiction to another, makes it almost impossible to develop an efficient regulatory system that protects these animals from these welfare problems, so a total ban is the most logical solution.”
Suffering of Domestic Animals in Circuses
Having established that animals suffer in circuses, then I moved on to talking specifically about domestic animals:
“But a ban of all animals in circuses, or just wild animals?
Many countries have banned the use of wild animals in circuses but some have banned all types of animals in them. I already mentioned that I do not believe that, from a theoretical point of view, we can say that domestic animals are less likely to suffer in circuses than wild animals. Although I believe wild animals are more likely to suffer in captivity since they are genetically less predisposed to adapt to it, when such captivity is a travelling circus and the animals are forced to perform, then I believe that the odds are evened up and both types of animals are likely to suffer. Furthermore, although domestic animals, through artificial selection, have changed genetically to be better suited to perform the task they were bred and kept for, none of the domestic animals used in circuses has been bred to perform in circuses or to do the acts they are asked to perform, so their domestic genetic condition does not necessarily help them. On the contrary, the advantage of using domestic animals in circuses is not an animal welfare issue but a human business issue, since domestic animals may be cheaper to obtain, and easier to handle and manage.
However, in order to address the subject from a more practical point of view, I took it upon myself to research it directly. I have watched and analysed 75 circuses performances available in videos on the internet involving the use of domestic animals (11 different types of domestic animals, but mostly horses, dogs and cats), and in them, I have found that, in the majority, adverse stimuli devices (such as whips or rods) were used. Also, in the majority of the performances, the animals were performing unnatural behaviours that may lead to injury (such as standing on two legs or climbing a rope upside down), and only in the minority of them the animals received any visible reward for their tricks (a treat or a stroke). In a considerable proportion of them, signs of distress could be seen in the animals’ facial expressions and body language. For instance, horses’ ears are good indicators of the animal’s mood, and I could see on several occasions that, when asked to perform the most demanding tricks, the horses had their ears pointing backwards (which is an indicator of fear or distress).”
The Whip Is the Predator’s Teeth
I then used the example of circus horses to unpack the behaviour of everyone involved, giving it an ethological reading:
“Let’s analyse the case of circus performing horses a bit more in detail. The most common circus act using horses consists of a group of horses moving in circles around the ring with the ‘trainer’ in the middle using two long sticks (one of them called the ‘Lunging whip’ typically ending with a whip) to direct them. In addition to this, the horses may stop in ‘synchronicity’, they may climb with the front legs to some small platforms, they may stand on their back legs and move forward or backwards, and they may bend their bodies and legs as to ‘salute’ (all this directed by the trainers — with their rods and whips).
Is this a completely ‘benign’ performance that the horses are enjoying? I would say that most likely no, since what the trainers have done is to ‘exploit’ some of the natural ‘adverse’ behaviours of horses to make them perform in this way through ‘positive reinforcement’, which is a well-established training method that does not mean that is benign (the ‘positive’ only means that a stimulus — benign or adverse — is given rather than removed, while the ‘reinforcement’ means that a behaviour is encouraged to be repeated, rather than to stop). The natural adverse behaviours exploited in this case are the ‘fleeing’ reaction to predator attack. Horses, like many herbivores that run in herds, use fleeing together at speed as their standard defence from predator attack, which not only puts them at arm’s length from the predator, but the fact that it is done together with the herd adds extra protection.
In the circus scenario, running in circles in the ring is the equivalent of the same defensive mechanism. And where is the predator? The predators are the trainers in the middle, and their ‘teeth’ are the whips. And what happens in the wild when the horses cannot escape the pursuing predators anymore? Then their last resource may be to try to kick them out. Standing up on the back legs when confronted with specific ‘whip’ actions is the equivalent of this last ‘defensive’ action against the predator. Therefore, we can argue that the classic horse circus act may be a ritualisation of defence against a predator attack, which is something the horse would not enjoy.
It may well be that when observing the performance, the whip is not cracked and it may not even contact the horse, but the behaviour has already been ‘engraved’ in the animals during training by what is called ‘classical conditioning’. In this case, the horses are ‘remembering’ the bad experience from training, which make the performance still a bad experience in itself. In the case of domestic animals, it is easy to forget that what it may look like ‘compliance’ and ‘obedience’ — which is a sign very familiar to us — may still be a bad experience for the animal.
In the videos I watched, I also saw dogs and cats not wanting to perform the most demanding tricks, horses back-kicking in a defensive move, and geese fleeing off the arena. All this not only suggests that some domestic animals receive the same treatment as wild animals do — including adverse training methods — but also that some are equally unsuited to perform the tasks they are asked to perform, and therefore they can also suffer distress during performances. In addition to this, the fact that such animals have to endure the same travelling, husbandry, and performing schedule conditions as the wild animals, suggests to me that there is no animal welfare justification to exclude domestic animals from a ban of performing animals in circuses.
In conclusion, my opinion is that indeed the use of animals in circuses, both wild and domestic, should be prohibited, because, when used in circuses’ performances, often their welfare is compromised beyond what is acceptable by today’s standards, and the itinerant nature of circuses makes it almost impossible to develop a sufficiently good regulatory system short to a total ban that guarantees good welfare for such animals.”
The Wild Animal Bias
In 2015, with a massive majority of 104 votes to 19, the Catalan Parliament passed a new law that banned the use of all wild animals in circuses. However, it also included a provision to create a “panel for the use of animals in circuses”, composed of independent experts, to oversee the use of domestic animals and advise if they should also be included in the ban later on. Specifically, the new law said, “The panel shall make its conclusions public within two years of the entry into force of this provision. In cases where the panel’s conclusions determine that the use of an animal species is incompatible with welfare conditions, the Government shall establish by regulation the prohibition of its use in circus shows, under the same conditions as those established by this law for wild animals.”
This outcome is quite good, but this panel of experts was only announced in 2017 (when the law came into effect), and I don’t think it has finished its work. Although the delay may be explained by the political events in Catalonia when Spain took control of governmental institutions for a while after a declaration of independence (and then the pandemic), it seems to me that this method of helping domestic animals in circuses was, although well-intentioned, too long-winded and inefficient. A total ban of all animals from the beginning, as Bolivia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Greece, Cyprus and Malta had already done, would had been better. The abolition option is always much better than the reform.
Why did they not choose that? Possibly, because politicians care more about wild animals than domestic animals. Historically, more abolition-style laws (which give full protection) have been passed to help wild animals than those to help domestic animals. For instance, the Birds Directive from the European Union instructed each EU nation to pass laws banning the hunting or capturing of most wild birds in the continent. Or the laws derived from CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) that prevent the trade of any endangered species of wild animal. But domestic animals such as dogs and cats are still used in vivisection; pigs, cows, chickens, and goats are still kept in horrible conditions in factory farming; and dogs, horses, and bulls are still abused for sport. Giving the “blind eye” to the horrors of the animal agriculture and biomedical research industries is something that most politicians are very used to (because, frankly, is something that most voters also do — otherwise there would be more than 10% of vegans in most population surveys).
This wild animal bias also happens in the UK, where I live. Scotland, England, and Wales all ended up banning the use of wild animals in circuses in 2017, 2019, and 2020 respectively. But many years prior they had also banned hunting wild mammals with dogs, killing most wild birds, or disrupting badgers, whilst domestic animals are still widely abused in all industries. Locally, the situation is a bit better. Over 200 UK local authorities have bans on animal circuses, and in these, more than two-thirds of the bans cover all performing animals, while the remainder only banned wild animals.
I believe that there are currently about eight circuses in the UK and Ireland that use domestic animals. For instance, in 2021, Circus Mondao travelled with horses, ponies, alpacas, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, and doves (and possibly other species). Who knows how long it would take for all these animals to be helped as their wild counterparts were?
Should We Campaign to Amend the Current Bans?
Although it is always good when a country bans a particular form of abuse of any animal — and we should celebrate each ban —these victories are just the starting pistol of the next campaign. The passing of each law that bans wild animals in circuses should be the beginning of the campaign to ban the rest of the animals left behind. I asked Dr Andrew Kelly, the new Director of ‘Freedom for Animals’ (an anti-captivity charity in the UK I always liked because it was an abolitionist animal rights organisation run by vegans) what are they planning to do about domestic animals in circuses. He sent me the following:
“Bans are now in place in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. However, we were disappointed that these bans did not include all animals. Some circuses still use domestic animals, including horses and dogs. It is degrading to make horses stand on their hind legs or to force a dog to wear human clothes and walk unnaturally on their hind legs while pushing a pram. And it is cruel to chase a line of ducks around a circus ring with loud comedy music playing. We believe it is wrong to make a dog balance on the back of a pony while the pony moves around the circus ring. These are just some of the cruel activities we have witnessed in travelling circuses which compromise the animals’ well-being.
In terms of what we are doing about this issue, we regularly call on our grassroots supporters to protest outside circuses that use animals and provide them with protest materials. We have also fundraised on this issue so that we can campaign more in the future.
Freedom for Animals believes that the use of domestic animals in circuses is unethical, cruel and should also be banned.”
I agree with that assessment. I also asked the president of ADI, Jan Creamer, for her position on this. She sent me this statement:
“Animal Defenders International has investigated and exposed the suffering of animals in circuses worldwide for the past thirty years. Our evidence shows that all animals in circuses suffer deprivation and abuse. The circus claim that domestic species are treated like their family, or pets, is not supported by the evidence and, like other animals, they spend excessive periods of time in small crates or cages. The evidence shows that domestic animals also suffer beatings behind the scenes. Our recommendation to legislators and authorities is to introduce a ban on all animals performing in circuses, but a wild animal ban is an important first step.”
I think that every campaign for banning animals in circuses should aim at both domestic and wild and gather evidence to support a ban on both. For vegan animal protection organisations campaigning for an all-animals ban is a natural choice, as for us ethical vegans, both wild and domestic animals matter equally. We need to campaign calling for the right thing, even if only the convenient thing is what politicians are likely to go for, because otherwise we lose the moral argument — which is always more valuable than the pragmatic argument.
We must increase the percentage of national bans that cover all animals in circuses (now is just about 20%), or many new countries that pass legislation will fall short and would require another long campaign to help the animals left behind — which will be more costly and difficult because of the bias politicians and the non-vegan public have. Until we get the majority of bans in the world covering all animals, I think it’s better to focus now on amending current bans to include domestic animals than to try to get new wild animal bans — and part of this should be doing undercover investigations of circuses with only domestic animals to show how they are treated. This will send the right message to politicians, the circuses themselves, but also to animal protection organisations that are considering helping on this issue.
Despite the fact I am an ethical vegan often campaigning for veganism, I do think there is room for single-issue campaigning in animal protection. But only if it is effective abolitionist campaigning, not just reform. Outdated circus bans should be improved until they are completely abolitionist, and any new ban should be up to date.
We are in the third decade of the 21st century, and no animal should be performing in any circus by now.
Anywhere in the world.