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The truth about exotic animals in circuses

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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Wednesday, 24 May 2017

This week, one of the world’s oldest circuses closed its curtains for good in the United States after almost 150 years in the business. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey made the call to close earlier this year, attributing declining ticket sales to two main factors: the attention span of the smartphone generation, and the community’s concerns regarding animal welfare.

Travelling circuses have been around in Australia since the 1860’s, and there are thought to be around a dozen still currently operating. For many years, several of these circuses kept elephants, but today only two continue to use exotic animals in performances. Both Stardust and Lennon Bros keep lions and rhesus macaque monkeys for use in their shows. While the macaques have been either sourced from zoos or bred within the circus, the lions have all been bred in captivity for several generations.

Although there have been improvements in circus conditions over the last 50 years, there are still inherent welfare problems associated with using exotic animals. Problems that not even the best housing, treatment or training methods can help to overcome.

The constant travelling, the confinement and the inability to meet the social, behavioural and physiological needs of the animals mean that the circus environment itself is the issue.

In Australia, there are no national welfare standards for circus animals. While some states have codes of practice or legal requirements, they generally focus on protecting animals from cruelty rather than promoting good welfare.

In the wild, macaques live in large social groups. Although interacting with trainers can help to reduce their boredom and frustration, this is still no substitute for the socialising these intelligent primates experience in a more natural environment.

Circus lions face similar challenges and often show severe signs of boredom and frustration when kept in the restricted environment of a circus pen, even with regular interaction with trainers.

Remember, these aren’t domestic animals; they’re captive wild animals, and the RSPCA believes no circus - no matter how well managed - can provide an appropriate environment for wild animals.

The closure of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey follows an increasing trend worldwide for a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, with 45 countries imposing national or local bans, citing animal welfare concerns as the main reason.

In Australia, many local councils have prohibited circuses with exotic animals, and in some cases circuses with any animals, from performing on council park lands. You can help locally by writing to your local council about this issue. Unless there is strong and active discouragement from the local community, circuses will continue to breed and train wild animals for the sole purpose of performing.

You can read more from the RSPCA’s latest information paper on circuses here:
Exotic Animals in Australian Circuses - RSPCA Information Paper March 2017.pdf

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