First global study of animal welfare in circuses finds elephants, lions and tigers are the animals least suited to life in a circus (1 June)
Stars of the show they may be, but elephants, lions and tigers are the wild animals least suited to life in a circus, concludes the first global study of animal welfare in circuses.
“It’s no one single factor,” says Stephen Harris of the University of Bristol, UK, and lead researcher of the study. “Whether it’s lack of space and exercise, or lack of social contact, all factors combined show it’s a poor quality of life compared with the wild,” he says.
The survey concludes that on average, wild animals spend just 1 to 9 per cent of their time training, and the rest confined to cages, wagons or enclosures typically covering a quarter the area recommended for zoos.
Worst affected are elephants, lions, tigers and bears. Often they’re confined to cages where they pace up and down for hours on end.
“Even if they are in a larger, circus pen, there’s no enrichment such as logs to play with, in case they use them to break the fence and escape,” says Harris.
Travel also takes its toll, although the evidence is limited. The study cites data showing that concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva from circus tigers remains abnormal up to 6 days after transport, and up to 12 days in tigers who’ve never travelled before.
The itineraries can be grueling too. When Harris and his colleagues analysed 153 European and North American circus trips, troupes only stayed at each single location for an average of a week before moving on, with an average of almost 300 kilometres between locations.
Even when they reach their destinations, the animals are often kept in conditions drastically different from their natural habitat. Elephants can be shackled for 12 to 23 hours per day when not performing, in areas from just 7 to 12 square metres. Often, they could only move as far as the chain would let them, just 1 to 2 metres.
In the wild, elephants spend 40 to 75 per cent of their time feeding, and cover up to 50 kilometres in a day.
Evidence also shows that circus elephants, lions, tigers, bears and even parrots, adopt repetitive abnormal movements and pacing, called stereotypes.
Also, the animals suffer ill-health both from confinement and from the tricks they learn to perform. Elephants, for example, become obese through inactivity and develop rheumatoid disorders and lameness as a result, as well as joint and hernia problems through having to adopt unnatural positions during performance.
“There is no evidence to suggest that the natural needs of non-domesticated animals can be met through the living conditions and husbandry offered by circuses,” concludes the study. “Neither natural environment nor much natural behaviour can be recreated in circuses.”
Although their conditions are not ideal, the species best suited to circus life include animals domesticated generations ago, such as dogs and horses. Horses, for example, have long adapted to travel between racecourses.
The same is not true, however, of the most glamorous wild animals. “It fits in with what you would intuitively imagine, that given the extensive transport, the sterile environment and the cramped conditions, you get welfare problems,” says Rob Atkinson, head of the wildlife department at the UK Royal Society for the Protection of Animals.
The study notes that some countries such as Austria have already banned wild animals from circuses, but they still feature prominently in major circuses of the US and Europe. Elephants disappeared from UK circuses for 10 years, but three have been on display since February at the Great British Circus.
Journal reference: Animal Welfare, vol 18, p 129
Source: World Society for the Protection of Animals
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