Lions and Tigers Forced to Take Part in 'Gladiator-style' Amphitheater Shows, Shocking Report Reveals

Animal rights groups have slammed "top zoos" that force animals to take part in demeaning and unnatural performances for the entertainment of visitors in a new report. Researchers found evidence of big cats being made to take part in gladiator-style shows or seals being trained to play-fight with "lightsabers" like in Star Wars, among many other examples.

International non-profit World Animal Protection and the Change for Animals Foundation investigated institutions that are direct or indirect members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA)—an organization that provides animal welfare guidelines.

These guidelines specifically state that its 1,200 members around the world should not involve animals in "shows, displays or interactive experiences where animals perform demeaning and unnatural behaviors."

However, some of these institutions appear to be breaching these very guidelines, causing unnecessary animal suffering. That's according to a report entitled "The show can't go on."

"Wild animals suffer every day in the name of entertainment," Ben Williamson, U.S. Campaigns Director at World Animal Protection," told Newsweek. "Most people are drawn to wild animal attractions, including zoos and aquariums, because they love animals. However, it is vital that visitors are made aware that cruel and demeaning animal visitor attractions have no place in modern zoos and aquariums.

"Circus-like shows and performances that force animals to exhibit unnatural behaviors on command, typically involve harsh training methods, such as beatings and food deprivation," he said. "The added pressure from a commercial perspective likely means that the animals will be pushed to perform even when they are not willing. Considering some venues expect animals to perform several times a day, every day, performing can become a considerable source of stress for them and this can cause injuries, illness and death."

For the study, the authors first reviewed the websites of more than 1,200 WAZA-linked zoo and aquarium websites across the globe from 78 different countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America.

They found that over 75 percent of these venues provided at least one type of animal-visitor interaction. Although it was not possible to fully assess the impacts on wild animals from this research alone, it did enable the authors to identify 12 WAZA-linked venues of concern where field researchers should investigate in person.

The animal visitor-interactions offered at these venues can be broken down as follows, according to the report.

• 43 percent - Offered petting experiences
• 33 percent - Offered walk or swim through enclosure experiences
• 30 percent - Offered shows/performances involving wildlife
• 28 percent - Offered indirect/non-hand feeding experiences
• 23 percent - Offered hand-feeding experiences
• 8 percent - Offered drive-through or cage diving experiences
• 5 percent - Offered riding experiences
• 5 percent - Offered walking with wildlife experiences

Among the institutions the report highlighted was SeaWorld San Antonio, which hosts several demeaning animal performances. Here, according to the report, dolphins were made to perform "breakdancing" routines where they walked on their tails to music, putting unnatural pressures on their bodies.

Furthermore, dolphins were trained to jump out of the water to beach themselves as a background prop for photographs. This can lead to scratch injures, and the crushing of internal organs if done for an extended amount of time. Dolphins here were also found in tiny tanks, meaning no escape from individual animals when they acted aggressively.

Also at this SeaWorld, beluga whales were forced to give rides to humans and act out scenes from famous movies, while orcas were trained to play catch.

"It is troubling that in 2019 we still have venues such as SeaWorld San Antonio inflicting this level of suffering on wild animals and calling it entertainment," Alesia Soltanpanah, Executive Director at World Animal Protection, said in a statement.

"Seeing wild animals perform in shows as photo props is unnatural and leads to a lifetime of suffering," she said. "These demeaning attractions simply have no place in any modern leading zoo or aquarium whilst hiding under the label of 'conservation. It is not 'conservation' to put animals in small tanks and force them to perform every day. That is called 'cruelty.'"

SeaWorld in San Antonio was not the only institution where these kinds of demeaning performances took place, according to the report. Investigators witnessed several cruel instances, such as big cats forced to perform in "gladiator-style" shows in large amphitheaters, dolphins being used like surfboards, seals made to fight with "lightsabers" as if they were in Star Wars, elephants playing basketball and chimps wearing diapers driving around on scooters.

According to Williamson, WAZA positions itself as the gold standard in zoo and aquarium management.

"We are asking WAZA to take responsibility for the activities of both its direct members and all other venues to which it is linked," he said. "WAZA is not enforcing its own rules and zoos are falling seriously short of their commitments to animal welfare. We are asking WAZA to review its membership to ensure the highest standards of animal welfare are being met and to remove venues that are not adhering to guidelines."

World Animal Protection recommends that you should avoid venues allow you to ride, touch and bathe wild animals; handle wild animals as photo props; see wild animals perform in circus-like shows; and see animals in clothes or exhibits that are unnatural or human-like.

"If [you] are aware of any zoos that participate in any of the activities listed above, then [you] should not go, and spread the word through friends, family, and social media networks," Williamson said.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Ben Williamson.

lion performance
A lion performing in a "gladiator-style" show. World Animal Protection

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