A sad bear looking up through bars

Exotic animal circuses: a show of cruelty and suffering.

A sad caged monkey looking out of cage
Close up of a circus Lion

Animal suffering

Animals in circuses around the world are routinely subjected to months on the road confined in small, barren cages. These animals are forced to live in enclosures denying them every opportunity to express their natural behaviours and their training is often based on fear and punishment, as revealed by numerous undercover investigations. As circuses play no meaningful role in education or conservation, the lifelong suffering of these animals continues only for the sake of a few minutes of entertainment.

A very angry looking lioness sitting on a stool in a circus.

Unnatural routines

Circuses defend the use of exotic animals by claiming the animals are loved and well cared for. But, adding to an overwhelming body of evidence, the 2009 scientific review ‘Are wild animals suited to a travelling circus life?‘ by the University of Bristol in the UK confirms that it is impossible to satisfy the behavioural and welfare needs of exotic animals in travelling circuses. The scientists conclude that “the species of non-domesticated animals commonly kept in circuses appear the least suited to a circus life.”

Elephant with shackles in zoo/captivity

Life in chains

Living conditions in circuses cause severe stress and frustration to non-domesticated animals, leading to abnormal behaviour (stereotypies) such as pacing by big cats, head bobbing by elephants or mouthing cage bars. These behaviours are scientifically acknowledged as indicators of impaired welfare due to the inability to cope with unsuitable living conditions.


Around the world, the plight of animals in circuses is increasingly heard. National, regional and local governments in at least 30 countries have already banned the use of exotic or all animals in circuses. There are currently no ‘exotic’ animals in circuses in Australia; but while an increasing number of Australian councils have taken an ethical stance by adopting a ban on exotic animal circuses from appearing on council land, a national ban is not yet in place.

The animals now forced to perform in Australian circuses include ponies, horses, goats and dogs. Although they are not ‘exotic’, these animals still have the same desires to experience the world around them with autonomy; to explore their space, to play or seek privacy if they wish, play, and to form social bonds. A lifetime in the circus for any animal, is a life of confinement when behind the scenes, and coercion when in the ring.


When children see animals in a circus, they learn that animals exist for our amusement. Quite apart from the cruelty involved in training and confining these animals, the whole idea that we should enjoy the humiliating spectacle of an elephant or lion made to perform circus tricks shows a lack of respect for the animals as individuals.
Peter Singer, AC
Author, Philosopher and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University
A sad looking young tiger sitting on the floor of cage in zoo

The future of circuses

Cirque du Soleil, Circus Oz and many other popular circuses have shown that the success and economic viability of the circus does not require the use of any animal. In fact, exotic animals were not even part of the original circus concept — they were introduced at a much later stage. Eliminating animal exploitation in circuses simply means an increase in human performers, not an end to the tradition of circuses.


All of the most entertaining circus productions rely exclusively on the skills of their talented human performers, proving that you don’t need animal cruelty to make a circus. Look out for these and other great non-animal acts when they tour a town near you!

A portrait of an elephent

What you can do:

  • Share information with your family and friends about the cruelty behind the big top, and explain to your children why you won’t take them to a circus with animals.
  • Take the pledge not to support animal circuses. And show your support for animal-free circuses instead!
Take the pledge now