Now Reading
The Cruelest Show on Earth: Why our kids won’t be going to the circus.

The Cruelest Show on Earth: Why our kids won’t be going to the circus.

Guest Blogger Nityda Coleman is about to change anything you ever believed about the circus.   And if you can’t change your mind, are you sure you have one?


Going to the circus seems to be a great American pastime, among the ranks of baseball even. As I stand outside the Madison Square Garden arena, located in midtown Manhattan, I can hear the excited voices of many children as they shout such exclamations as, “We’re going to see the animals!” and “Look at the elephant.” The elephant this one particular child was referring to was the one that was standing right next to me. This was not a real elephant, rather a woman dressed in an elephant costume that was adorned with bandages. This elephant held a sign that read “Ringling Bros. Circus on Trial for Elephant Abuse.” I stood beside this elephant with an abundance of flyer’s in my hand. I was there to protest.

“Look at the elephant,” the little boy proclaimed from a distance. As he and his mother continued our way, their bright smiles faded to looks of shock, confusion and gloom. This mother didn’t know that in purchasing tickets to “the greatest show on earth,” her hard-earned dollars were supporting the abuse of beautiful elephants for the sole purpose of what?…human entertainment.


The origins of the U.S. circus trace back to ancient Rome, in which ampitheatres that were called circuses (the Latin word “circus” is derived from the Greek word “kirkos” meaning “circle” or “ring”) were used to showcase gladiator contenders engaging in battle, chariot races, and a variety of “blood sports” including animal slaughter. These showcases formed two traditions that many circuses uphold today: One. The training of animals for arena exhibition. And two. The pre-show parade.

Much later, in England in the year 1768, Philip Astley, a bareback rider, figured a way to stand on his horse’s back while the horse galloped around a circular space. He accredited his ability to balance on the horse to centrifugal and centripetal forces. Astley was thus credited with developing the circus ring and he proceeded to put on shows with hired musicians, a clown and a variety of performers.

For a good while horses were the main animals to be showcased in circus displays–that is until the arrival of the first elephant to North America in 1796. This elephant, the first elephant to come to America, was also the first elephant to be used in a circus in the U.S.-the Cayetano, Codet, Menial & Redon Circus of New York in 1812. Years later, in 1871, America’s “Greatest Show on Earth,” which has now transitioned to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, began it’s   tour around our country–creating an empire of circus-going tradition for millions of Americans.


Elephants, tigers, and the animals of today’s circus (by the way the Ringling Bros. now use dogs in their new show “Zing Zang Zoom”) are not natural performers. Elephants do not naturally stand on their hind legs, while tigers–like all living beings–feel fear, and do not wish to jump through flaming hoops of fire. The only way to get these animals to perform such stunts is strict, and sometimes violent, discipline.

These findings are not new: In July of 2000, four animal rights organizations, along with a former Ringling Bros. employee, filed a lawsuit against the Ringling Bros. and the affiliated Feld Entertainment for the “taking”–harming, harassing, and wounding–of Asian Elephants: a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Nine years later, the trial continues. Here is a brief excerpt of the legal complaint made by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Fund for Animals (FFA),the Animal Protection Institute (API), and former Ringling Bros. employee, Tom
Rider: “Despite the ‘taking’ prohibitions of the ESA (Endangered Species Act), and the prohibitions of the AWA (Animal Welfare Act), Ringling Bros. regularly beats and hits the adult elephants in its possession with sharp bull hooks to ‘train’ them, to ‘control’ them, make them perform tricks, ‘discipline’ and punish them. Ringling Bros. engages in this conduct throughout the country, including in Washington, D.C.”

According to the Ringling Bros. internal train records, not only are the animals beaten with bull hooks, they are chained around the ankles, sometimes for “more than 26 consecutive hours.” Former Ringling Bros. employees have stated that the animals are chained for the majority of their lives, exempting the times that they are displayed to the public, and often these elephants are standing around in their own urine and excrement while chained.

One more complaint from the plaintiffs:

“Despite the prohibitions of the ESA and the AWA regulations, Ringling Bros. routinely forcibly removes baby elephants from their mothers with the use of ropes and chains before the animals are even 2 years old, i.e., long before they could normally be weaned from their mothers in the wild. Ringling Bros. does this to establish dominance and control over the baby elephants in furtherance of its overall objective of ensuring that they will perform as required for the circus throughout the country, including in Washington, D.C.”

The plaintiffs also presented evidence accounting for the deaths of four baby elephants while under the Ringling Bros. care. Tom Rider, who worked as the afternoon barn man for the Ringling Bros. in Austin, TX, in his testimony states, “I was injured in the eye when an elephant slammed me with her tail and I have been slammed a few times while working around them [the elephants].” Rider also testifies, “After my three years working with elephants in the circus, I can tell you that they live in confinement and they are beaten all the time when they don’t perform properly. That makes them dangerous and they want to get away.”


While there were people that didn’t look my way when I tried to hand them a flyer containing information about the trial, and while there were even some people who yelled at me and my fellow protestors, claiming it was all a lie or that the circus is a family tradition that they would never discontinue, many people–circus goers or not–did stop, listen and show compassion or worry towards our cause.

“It just makes you want to cry” said one woman with her daughter. Her daughter looked quite overwhelmed. In fact, it was many of the young people that walked past our demonstration that expressed the greatest concern. “Mommy we’re not going to the circus because they beat the elephants,” proclaimed one little boy.I personally find it ironic that Ringling Bros. hosts a special offer for “Baby’s First Circus.” This information can be found here:

“Free Ticket for Baby’s First Circus Moms and Dads! Children of All Ages! Parenthood brings many wonderful firsts – your baby’s first tooth, your baby’s first steps… and of course, your Baby’s First Circus! That’s why we created the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Baby’s First Circus program for parents and their newborns (up to 12 months old and living in the continental United States).”

I think the irony here is that children have a huge heart for animals and if they knew how these animals were treated they would probably be the first ones to speak against it’s cruelties.


The great news is that there are tons of contemporary circuses popping up all over the world. These shows only involve non-human animals, who are participating by choice, and for compensation. For kicks, some of these guys dress up like animals, but never ever exploit them! Here are three of the many:

See Also

One of the most popular contemporary circuses is Cirque du Soliel, which has grown from a group of 20 street performers in 1984, to a company of over 4000 artists from all over the world. Their strong, athletic bodies put out a variety of shows throughout the calendar year. Much more entertaining than watching elephants perform unnatural stunts! Click here to learn more about Cirque Du Soleil.

Circus Oz is another popular group of guys and gals based out of Australia. They describe themselves as “a rock-n-roll, animal free circus that adults and children can enjoy together.”

I especially love their mission statement: “Circus Oz has a strong belief in tolerance, diversity and human kindness. For many years the company has engaged in issues associated with social justice and a good time for all, including work each year with many charities, indigenous communities and the raising of over $243,000 in donations to support refugees and asylum seekers.”

Learn more about Circus Oz.

Based out of West Africa is Circus Baobab. This group uses a mixture of song, percussions and amazing acrobatic feats to translate stories about their culture and heritage. Check out Circus Baobab here (this website is currently under construction).


The evidentiary portion of the most recent, six-week long trial, in Washington, D.C. came to a close on March 16th. The lawyers presented their closing arguments on March, the 18th. In speaking with Tracy Silverman, of the AWI Counsel yesterday, April 7th, she stated that we “may not have a ruling for some time.” Silverman explained that AWI was “still in the process of filing our final brief” for the case. She then acknowledged that once they do submit their briefs, after their review, the judge “may ask them to return for additional arguments.”     No matter when or what the outcome of the trial is, it is up to us to spread the word. If you feel, as I do, that the abuses these circus animals endure are cruel and unjust, then I urge you to spread the word to people in your circle whether they are circus goers or not. Support the contemporary circuses that do not exploit animals, and if you are feeling it, get out and protest–speak for the animals and let your voice act as theirs!

Learn more about the trial by visiting these sites:

Animal Welfare Institute. –If you click on “Trial Updates” on the left you can actually view
videos and legal court documents exhibited throughout the trial.

Ringling Brothers Trial Info. To view Tom Rider’s testimony click here.

Guest Blogger Nityda Coleman is a nature perusing, animal loving, vinyasa yoga teacher and Holistic Health Counselor (HHC) of The American Association for Drugless Practitioners (AADP) based out of NYC. She enjoys reading and writing about everything vegan. Weakness: Goldie’s Premium carob bars: “How are they so deliciously smooth and creamy?!.” Check her out at