Cruelty to Circus Animals Is Not Entertainment

Elephants perform tricks in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey "Circus Xtreme" show at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on April 30. Delcianna Winders writes that watching a terrified tiger jump through a hoop is a depressing relic of the past. Andrew Kelly/reuters

The recent attack of former Ringling exhibitor Vicenta Pages by her tiger Gandhi in front of dozens of schoolchildren reminds us, yet again, why banning wild animal acts is the right thing to do, not just for animals but for humans as well.

Video footage of the incident shows Pages and her husband repeatedly beating Gandhi until he finally releases Pages, who was taken to the hospital for surgery.

This is hardly the only incident of its kind. Just earlier this year, a Florida zookeeper was fatally attacked by a tiger. On average, captive big cats kill about one person every year in the United States and injure many more. Because they are transitory and involve direct contact with wild animals, circuses pose heightened risks.

The Ringling tiger trainer who appeared at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, earlier this year has bragged about having more than 250 stitches, plus 44 new ones from a single season. In at least two other incidents, Ringling tigers have mauled individuals.

After one of these incidents, a trainer locked the tiger in a cage and shot the trapped animal five times, killing him. Workers with UniverSoul Circus have lost the tips of fingers to tigers.

Despite these attacks, government reports show that dangerous animals with Ringling and UniverSoul have repeatedly been held with inadequate barriers. Tigers have repeatedly escaped from UniverSoul, and Ringling tiger got loose in a Chicago parking lot and attacked a handler, who was hospitalized with serious bite wounds on his neck and side.

At a recent New York City Council meeting to consider banning these dangerous acts, a UniverSoul representative admitted that escapes endanger the public, while Ringling's representative conceded that they can't guarantee that animal escapes won't happen again.

Wild animal acts also pose zoonotic risks. UniverSoul tours with elephants who have been exposed to the human strain of tuberculosis, which is highly transmissible between elephants and humans, even without direct contact, since it's airborne. In 2014, New York City officials required UniverSoul to keep elephants out of its acts after the circus failed to provide current TB tests.

Last year, Dallas officials prohibited elephants with UniverSoul from performing because they had "tested reactive for tuberculosis" and Michigan's assistant state veterinarian cautioned that these elephants should not be on the road because of their TB status. Ringling repeatedly exposed the public to sick elephants.

Though these risks alone are more than enough to warrant banning wild animal acts, it's also worth considering the immense suffering involved.

Tigers, who roam ranges of up to 400 miles in the wild, are confined to tiny transport enclosures—often for days, weeks and even months on end. The Department of Agriculture has repeatedly cited UniverSoul's big cat exhibitor for keeping animals "in travel cages 24/7."

New York City officials prohibited UniverSoul from bringing tigers into the city after finding that they were held in cages so tiny they couldn't even stretch. Inspection reports similarly reveal that Ringling routinely denies tigers exercise, confining them to small cages except for the few minutes they are on stage.

Big cats have also suffered heatstroke while being hauled around. A young lion with Ringling died in a poorly ventilated boxcar in the Mojave Desert, and two tigers injured themselves trying to escape from an overheated boxcar.

On stage, these animals perform because they're terrified not to. According to a recent report by the behavioral husbandry manager of Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo in Nebraska, who has 25 years of experience training animals, the lions and tigers with Ringling are managed through fear, coercion and punishment.

This is confirmed by a former Ringling employee, who testified that handlers regularly beat tigers with sticks, broom handles and metal rods and by an undercover investigation that revealed numerous incidents in which tigers were forcefully struck.

A whistleblower also reported that Ringling handlers intentionally slammed cats' tails in cage doors. And the Department of Agriculture cited Ringling for wounding a tiger by closing her tail in a gate. Heartbreaking footage reveals a similar incident with UniverSoul—a distressed tiger struggling to free her foot, which was shut in a cage door.

Government records also reveal that tigers and other animals with Ringling and UniverSoul have repeatedly been denied veterinary care, including a limping tiger, a tiger with an open wound on her head, a camel with bloody wounds and a dying baby elephant.

Such abuse and neglect is simply unacceptable. By banning wild animal acts, New Yorkers can ensure that they are not complicit, while also protecting public health and safety.

This doesn't mean putting the circus out of business. In fact, almost 100 years ago, after novelist Jack London criticized animal acts as "cold-blooded, conscious, deliberate cruelty and torment," sparking a protest movement, Ringling removed animals from its shows, citing public criticism about cruelty. For four years, Ringling toured without animals.

Ringling has repeatedly attributed its long history of success to its ability to evolve and change with the times. The circus's representative told the New York City Council that the company is doing just fine even though it has removed its elephant and zebra acts.

I've been to numerous Ringling and UniverSoul shows, and they are full of awesome displays of human talent. The animal acts make up only a tiny fraction of the shows and are not the part that enthralls audiences the most.

Watching an abused elephant stand on a pedestal or a terrified tiger jump through a hoop is a depressing relic of the past.

A motorcycle crew doing back flips and handstands while flying through the air, a freestyle BMX act put on by X Game medalists, talented contortionists, acrobats and other talent from around the world—that's real entertainment.

Delcianna J. Winders is Harvard Law School's animal law and policy fellow.