‘Positive reinforcement’ doesn’t come from whips

Published April 26 2009

Wild-animal circuses do not and cannot provide humane conditions for animals. Circuses say they have every incentive to treat animals well.

By: Christine Coughlin, Duluth News Tribune

This week, the wild-animal circus makes its annual appearance in Duluth. Along with the glitter and laughs is the growing controversy over the practice of using wild animals for entertainment. Animal circuses are often met with protesters, letters to the editor and requests for a humane alternative.

So what’s the fuss?

Wild-animal circuses do not and cannot provide humane conditions for animals. Circuses say they have every incentive to treat animals well. In reality, every incentive exists to make animals perform. By whatever means necessary, the circus must ensure wild animals will execute their stunts.

In circus programs and on Web sites, the industry reassures the public it uses positive reinforcement on the animals. Yet, during shows, audiences watch as big-cat trainers crack whips while cats do tricks. Elephants are accompanied by men with bullhooks, sticks with sharp metal hooks on one end. No matter how they’re marketed, whips and hooks are not positive reinforcement. They serve as continual reminders to the animals of what could happen if they don’t comply.

And that’s just what can be seen at circuses. What about training sessions held behind closed doors or out of our sight?

Much of what’s known about training and discipline in circuses has been brought to light by former circus employees and undercover investigators. Through eyewitness testimony and videotapes, the public has learned of horrific abuses behind the scenes. Several weeks ago, closing arguments were heard in a Washington, D.C., federal district court trial, in which it was alleged Ringling Bros. abused its endangered Asian elephants with bullhooks and prolonged chaining, in violation of the Endangered Species Act. In that case, videotapes were shown, and five former employees testified against Ringling. A decision in the case is expected this spring.
Prolonged chaining and unnatural confinement of circus animals may be more debilitating over the long term than abusive training and discipline. Wild animals in circuses routinely spend up to 20 hours a day on short chains or in small cages. Osteomyelitis, a painful and life-threatening disease affecting the feet and legs of elephants, is correlated with prolonged standing on concrete and is found only in captive elephants. Stereotypic behaviors — like repetitive rocking, bobbing and pacing — are in response to confinement, are indicative of physiological stresses, and are commonly seen in circus animals and not in animals in the wild.

Animal circuses do not teach children about the normal behaviors of healthy animals. They do not teach about the conservation challenges faced by those working to protect the animals in their native environments. What animal circuses teach is that it’s acceptable to separate individual animals from their families, to train them with harsh tools, and to hold them in intensive confinement, denying them every instinct to move and roam freely, as nature intended.

Many parents are choosing to take their children to circuses without animals. Animal-free circuses are on a growing list of entertainment options, and are increasing in popularity.
Let’s take the best of what the circus has to offer — acrobats, stunts, clowns, music — and leave the wild animals where they belong, in the wild. Animal circuses offer moments of entertainment in exchange for lifetimes of misery. They are not worth it.

CHRISTINE COUGHLIN of Minneapolis is a member of Circus Reform Yes, a Minnesota nonprofit that advocates for animal-free circuses.


Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at https://bigcatrescue.org


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