Back to All News

Speech: Circus animals

Video & Multimedia
Lee Rhiannon 22 Sep 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:09): Circuses are not glamorous for circus animals. No matter how caring a circus animal keeper might be, the impoverishment and stress of a circus animal's existence casts a dark shadow over the glitter and glamour of the circus ring. No matter how hard a circus might try, the very logistics of circus life creates terrible images associated with grim historical times—of intelligent creatures passing their lives in small barren cages, swaying their chains in deep loneliness, or swinging from manic hyperactivity to quiet depression. But this is not in the past; it is happening now, here in Australia.

I am sure most circus keepers love their animals, but the conditions of captivity and performance is unnatural and cruel. No circus can provide an appropriate environment for any animal, regardless of how well managed it is, and no matter how committed the circus is to stopping deliberate mistreatment.


Animals are compelled to constrain every impulse to flee to a quiet, safe place, instead being forced to perform manoeuvres against profound physical and psychological instinct, in front of crowds and within a constant roar of noise and glaring lights. And then animals are returned to impoverished confinement day after day, year in and year out. They suffer the stresses of transportation with cage movement, human handling, loading and unloading, heat and cold. And on top of all this they have to suffer crowds and constant containment.

No amount of care from a keeper can remove the constant state of prolonged anxiety that circus animals must bear their whole lives. Both wild animals and those bred in captivity over generations, suffer terribly. Confinement in barren enclosures for long periods of time is well recognised and condemned as causing severe physical and psychological damage in all species, including humans. Lack of enrichment coupled with no ability to physically live, move, and behave according to a species' being is terribly cruel. So is forcibly removing or isolating an animal from its bonded fellow species, or enclosing the animal in a space with non-bonded animals.

Another factor circus animals have to cope with is loud noise. Loud noise is a recognised stress factor in all species. Large cats in circuses develop gastroenteritis as a consequence of persistent, loud noise. Tigers' pacing has been measured as peaking by up to 80 per cent in the hour leading up to a performance and when on public display. High cortisol levels—signs of heightened stress and a need to flee—persist for three to six days in animals that have experienced travelling, and nine to 12 days in newly travelled tigers.

Elephants show similar stresses and abnormal behaviour, with swaying, weaving and head-nodding. They commonly suffer severe skin problems from lack of mud baths, and commonly suffer joint and hernia problems thought to result from unnatural positions forced during performance. Monkeys, bears and wild ungulates—any number of hoofed animals including horses, cattle and camels, among others—as well as other species, huddle and display hypervigilant and aversive behaviour when exposed to crowds and noise. Monkeys' self-aggression rises even when just moved from one cage to another, and circus monkeys have commonly been found to suffer from protein deficiencies.

Snakes in captivity have been found to have weakened immune systems, making them more susceptible to dying from infection and septicaemia. Low immune levels are attributed to the high noise and brilliant light during circus performances. Captive parrots display repetitive behaviour and vocalisations. Even pet parrots have been found to suffer high cortisol levels.

Domesticated circus animals that are transported are likely to develop fatigue, weight loss, restricted movement and disrupted feeding patterns. It goes on. Even adherence to the various standards around Australia that prohibit explicit cruelty do not remove the inherent cruelty that circuses can inflict on their animals—even their very loved animals. Animal suffering, for our entertainment and enjoyment of spectacle, has no place in society. Increasingly, communities around the world are acknowledging the implicit cruelty of animal circuses and have taken the step of banning exotic animal circuses, as is recommended by many of Australia's animals organisations, including the RSPCA, which is charged with inspecting animals against the relevant standards. At least 30 countries around the world have banned the use of exotic animals and/or all animals in circuses, and in Australia more than 43 local councils have banned circuses with animals. I certainly congratulate them.

My colleague in the New South Wales state parliament, Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi, who is our animal welfare spokesperson in that state, has launched the Greens animal free circus campaign calling on the New South Wales government to ban animal performances in circuses. We certainly encourage more local councils to ban circuses with animals from setting up on their land. A ban on animals appearing in circuses, I believe, would be a win-win situation. The animal cruelty would end and circuses would have a new lease of life, attracting crowds back to their performances based on human skills in entertainment. That obviously would be a wonderful outcome. I believe it is an outcome we are moving more closely towards, with increasing numbers of countries and councils taking up this important issue.

Back to All News