10 Facts About Circus Animals

Circus animals probably work a lot harder than many of your favorite human performers.
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One of my favorite all-time insults is to call someone a circus animal. Why is the term so satisfying? Hard to say, but I would guess that it implies the object of the slur is nothing short of ridiculous — like, say, an elephant wearing a tiny tiara, sitting down for tea. It also implies a craziness, like one might associate with a horse that gallops at full speed while patiently letting an acrobat do somersaults on its back. And lastly, I think that we associate circus animals with straight-up bananas behavior like a lion letting a human put their head in its jaws!

But circus animals are more than just caricatures. From the inception of the circus, they've been touted as full-fledged performers. Audiences are generally asked to see them as developed actors, and not just beasts trained to do rope tricks. Some would argue that behind the scenes they're treated far worse than a pet. In that spirit, we've compiled a list of circus animal facts that give us some insight into the history of their employment and acknowledge that the circus has — at times — taken advantage of its stars.


10: Circus Animals Started in Greek theatre

Modern audiences wouldn't have been able to handle the brutality and gore of Circus Maximus.
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The circus animal tradition probably started whenever humans figured out that a dog could sit on command or a monkey looked funny riding a bicycle. (The former probably happened first, but only history knows for sure.) We do at least have a record of the Greeks and Romans having a grand old time watching animals perform for them [source: Speaight]. Many of us think the "circus" started at Circus Maximus — the huge amphitheater of Rome — but it's important to remember that animals were largely used there for gladiatorial sacrifice, not performance. Not exactly friendly fare for us modern families.

By the time we arrived in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, performing animals were quite popular and — a little unlike the circus today — the animals were used as tools for propaganda, as well. One historical act had an ape that jumped for the King of England but sat stock still when someone claimed the same command was from the Pope [source: Speaight]. And while chimps or apes proved popular, it was two other animals that gave us a favorite circus nickname.


9: The Dog and Pony Show

The proverbial dog and pony show is actually a real thing that's alive and well today.
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We largely associate the circus with our more exotic animal friends: Elephants, tigers and even performing bears are what bring the crowds in. But you might be surprised to find out that our circus precursors — the Medieval or Renaissance fairs and carnivals that the circus slowly swallowed up by the 18th and 19th centuries — really often were dog and pony shows, where the easily available (and trainable) animals were taught to do tricks [source: Speaight].

But here's the thing: the dog and pony show didn't die when Big Circus showed up. In fact, these small "circuses" actually became a great way for somewhat disreputable folks to cash in on the lure of the Big Top without having much of an act. Often times, they were just little fronts for, say, bootlegging or a strip show that couldn't exactly be promoted, which is why they became strictly regulated in 19th or 20th century America [source: A Way With Words]. That's why the phrase "dog and pony show" is often used in a disparaging manner. We're just nodding to the hucksterism history of these off-brand circuses.


8: Horses Are The Thing

Elephants are great and all, but horses have been holding the circus down for much longer.
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If you want to learn about circus animals, it's super important to understand just how critical the horse was in the development of the circus we know today. It may seem strange considering how fully tame lions and trained elephants capture our attention these days, but the circus actually all began with some amazing equestrian riders — and their equally impressive steeds.

In late 18th century Britain, equestrian riding schools began showing performances of horse trick riding, which included lots of standing on the back of galloping stallions and acrobatic-like contortionism performed during rides [source: Speaight]. These acts took place in a large circular ring, so crowds could see the action from start to finish. It was much harder to watch a performer on a half-mile straightaway, after all. This circular track provided the name for the clowning, juggling, acrobatics and various entertainments that filled the holes between horse acts — the Latin word "circus," meaning circle.


But there's actually a little more drama to the horse-and-circus story. Let's find out how circus animals were first part of a much grander theatre tradition.

7: Hip Hip Hippodrama

Queen Victoria enjoyed watched horses like Black Eagle perform the waltz, the polka, imitate camels and stand erect on their hind legs.
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When you're turning up your nose at the low-brow circus animals you see performing for peanuts, perhaps you should keep in mind the rather grandiose beginnings of our animal actors. It wasn't the circus that made a lot of animals "famous"; instead, the animals were already stars on stage, and the circus promoters took advantage of their popularity.

Even horses — the original circus animals — were actually gaining an audience in the 19th century through hippodrama. Hippodrama was a curious blend of theatre and horsemanship. Essentially, the play revolved around either a horse or horses performing as part of the action and they proved quite popular with folks wanting to see, say, the story of a bandit galloping about on horseback [source: Speaight]. Later on, other trainable animals — like lions — were used in productions, which whetted the public's appetite for exotic creatures. Queen Victoria saw a performance of "Charlemagne" seven times, where the showstopper featured a lion and panther performing together [source: Speaight].


But enough of these mysterious beasts that populate the circus in our own time. Let's take a look at some circus animals that never quite lived up to a fearsome reputation but were quite popular: the animals we might see in our own home or out on the farm.

6: Old McDonald Could've Had a Circus

Believe it or not, cats have proven to be reliable (and agreeable) circus talent.
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As noted earlier, circus animals haven't always been strange creatures from far-away lands. In fact, we still see shows today that showcase much more traditional creatures. Equestrian performances are still staple circus acts and let's not forget the amazing Acro-Cats that you can still see touring today. While we might pause at the thought of trained cats, it turns out that there's a long tradition there: One clown in the early 19th century had an act where cats pulled him obediently around in a cart [source: Speaight]. Take that, lions.

But it wasn't just entirely domesticated animals that worked early circus days. Pigs were big-time circus heavyweights, and had shown up in shows since the 18th century [source: Speaight]. Bulls and cows also graced the ring, but apparently they just don't have a lot of capacity for tricks — perhaps unsurprising, if you've ever attempted a meaningful interaction with a cow. In any case, farm animals doing small tricks became a bit boring for audiences, who wanted the razzle-dazzle of the glitzy circus animals we see today.


5: Animals Got No Respect

Boxing a bear might be more brutal on the human than the bear.
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So we've covered a lot about circus animal history, but what about some more contemporary circus animal facts? Well, first let's address the elephant (wearing the sequined headdress and walking a tightrope) in the room. Circus animals — both throughout history and in present-day — have been treated extremely badly, and we would be remiss to ignore it. Let's just get one more thing straight about circus animal history: Circuses didn't start off anywhere close to cruelty-free.

In the beginning, animal trainers (or tamers or keepers) used cruelty in order to "teach" their animal's behavior or tricks. The most famous lion trainer of the 19th century was Isaac Van Amburgh, and while a lot of his act consisted of so-called "playing" with the animals in delight, it belied the cruelty he inflicted on them outside the ring [source: Speaight]. He supposedly beat his animals with a crowbar, which I suppose is one way to skin a cat — but seems like a very effective way to have the cat skin you [source: Thayer].


How about today? Are circus animals still treated so badly?

4: . . . And Still Don't

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, better known as PETA, has fiercely advocated for circus animals for years.

Even in the last decade, there has been a host of terrible publicity for circuses when it comes to their treatment of animal colleagues. In 2011, Feld Entertainment (the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) was fined $270,000 by the United States Department Agriculture after they found numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act [source: Grove]. It was the largest fine on record, but note that it probably didn't do much damage to the $1 billion annual revenue bottom line [source: Grove].

Bullhooks are a common training tool used on elephants, and also controversial. The device — which looks like a fireplace poker, with its sharp-hooked end — is basically designed to prod an elephant's skin, which a lot of people argue is simply cruel. By 2014, over 40 municipalities in the United States and 30 countries around the globe had expressed enough concern over the use of bullhooks that regulatory measures were passed — including a full-on ban in Oakland and Los Angeles. This change in regulation resulted in one more fact about elephants in the circus you might not realize.


3: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Won't Use Elephants (Eventually)

Synchronizing elephants is no easy feat, and the circus industry has cut many corners ethics-wise over the years.
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After Los Angeles and Oakland banned bullhooks in 2014, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said they would no longer tour there. But after a collective shrug from the cities, a rather huge development took place in 2015: Feld Entertainment (the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus) decided to retire all their elephants by 2018 to a conservation center in Florida, effectively phasing out elephant performances in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus once and for all [source: Izadi].

Now let's note that Feld Entertainment wasn't about to say that they were admitting wrongdoing or bowing under pressure from animal rights activists. In fact, litigation had been ongoing in a veritable tug of war: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) had to pay Feld Entertainment $9.3 million after Feld sued and won after claiming ASPCA made an abuse of claim in an earlier lawsuit against them [source: Allen]. The bottom line? Elephant cruelty prevention had gotten messy on both sides, and Feld Entertainment said that it wanted to provide a resource for Asian elephant preservation by retiring the elephants by 2018 — leaving animal rights groups wondering why it would take three years to do so [source: Izadi].


2: Flea Circuses Are Real (Even if the Fleas Aren't)

Fleas aren't simply pest, according to some, they're highly trainable.
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Not to diminish the importance of humane animal treatment, but my goodness — the circus should provide us a happy headspace. Let's move on to some cheerier animal facts, by taking a closer look — at one circus attraction that is controversial because nobody is quite certain that it exists in the first place. Step right up, ladies and gentleman, to learn a little bit about the flea.

The one fact we can't absolutely positively confirm is the big one: Are there actually fleas in the flea circus? Professor A.G. Gertsacov — who is the ringmaster and owner of the Acme Miniature Flea Circus — swears he uses pulex irritans (human fleas, bigger than the ones you'd find on Fido or Miss Kitty) in his show to do things like pull teeny chariots [source: Viera]. But that doesn't mean that every show is bonafide — some performers really do use electronics or magnets to make props dance.


But the truth is that in 1578, a smithy named Mark Scalliot really did attain a level of fame in London for fashioning a little gold collar for a flea — the earliest flea circus recorded [source: Furgurson].

1: When Circus Animals Retire

Many circus animals actually have failry nice happy endings after their years of service.
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Not every circus animal works until their last breath. Some animals get to live the twilight of their years away from the daily grind of perching on their hind legs or jumping through hoops. When the Great British Circus sold off their animals in 2012, they actually advertised their goods — a zebra and two horses — in ads in the back of Horse and Hound Magazine [source: Animal Defenders International].

And you might be surprised to know that some animals with the circus aren't owned by the show at all, but have private owners that lease out the animals. Upon retirement from work, they're back to being the responsibility of the owner [source: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey]. Some elephants also go to zoos, where they exist in communities of elephants. But it seems many of the animals go to wildlife sanctuaries. Both an elephant and a big cat sanctuary are run by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Florida.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Facts About Circus Animals

In the interest of erring on the safe side, I would argue that the only animal you're guaranteed to see treated like royalty at the circus is the flea. And that doesn't just go for flea circuses; there's got to be a lot of fleas at every circus, and you know they're living the life.

Related Articles

  • A Way with Words. "Dog and Pony Show Origins." Sept. 29, 2012. (May 6, 2015) http://www.waywordradio.org/dog-and-pony-show-origins/
  • Amazing Animals. "Acro-cats." CircusCats.com. 2014. (May 6, 2015) http://circuscats.com/schedule.html#.VUqEctpVikq
  • Anderson, Libby. For sale: one zebra, four horses and four camels." OneKind.org. Aug. 23, 2012. (May 6, 2015) http://www.onekind.org/news_blog/blog_article/for_sale_zebra_horses_camels
  • Animal Defenders International. "Britain's biggest wild animal circus sells its animals." April, 17, 2015. (May 6, 2015) http://www.ad-international.org/animals_in_entertainment/go.php?id=2780
  • Furgurson, Ernest B. "A Speck of Showmanship." The American Scholar. June 3, 2011. (May 6, 2015) https://theamericanscholar.org/a-speck-of-showmanship/#.VUqHRNpVikp
  • Grove, Lloyd. "USDA Complaint is PETA's Latest Salvo in War Against Ringling Bros." The Daily Beast. Oct. 18, 2012. (May 6, 2015) http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/10/18/usda-complaint-is-peta-s-latest-salvo-in-war-against-ringling-bros.html
  • Izadi, Elahe. "The long battle to remove elephants from the Ringling Bros. circus." The Washington Post. March 5, 2015. (May 6, 2015) http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/10/18/usda-complaint-is-peta-s-latest-salvo-in-war-against-ringling-bros.html
  • Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. "Animal Care FAQ." Feld Entertainment. 2015. (May 6, 2015) http://www.ringling.com/ContentPage.aspx?id=45761
  • Speaight, George. "A History of the Circus." Tantivy Press. 1980. (May 6, 2015) http://books.google.com/books?id=DG5OAAAAYAAJ&focus=searchwithinvolume&q=
  • Thayer, Stuart. "The Keeper Will Enter the Cage: Early Wild Animal Trainers." Circus Historical Society. 2005. (May 6, 2015) http://www.circushistory.org/Thayer/Thayer2a.htm
  • The Acme Miniature Flea Circus. "Press Archive." AcmeFleaCircus.com. Nov. 2, 2011. (May 6, 2015) http://www.acmefleacircus.blogspot.com/
  • The Associated Press. "Oakland Joins LA in Banning Circus Elephant Tool." The New York Times. Dec. 18, 2014. (May 6, 2015) http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2014/12/18/us/ap-us-bullhook-ban-california.html
  • Williams, Helena. "Five facts about elephants in circuses you need to know." The Independent. Dec. 17, 2013. (May 6, 2015) http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/five-facts-about-elephants-in-circuses-you-need-to-know-9010288.html