Animal Cruelty under the Big Top

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P.T. Barnum, who is credited with the creation of the traditional American circus, once said, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” Barnum, often regarded as the “Greatest Showman”, used his talents to market a new kind of entertainment: a show based on human curiosities and unprecedented phenomena. The circus focuses on providing family-friendly amusement with bright lights, booming music, exotic animals and of course; peanuts and cotton candy. However, things are not as innocent as they seem under the big top.

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Despite its light-hearted appeal, the circus is founded on the immoral notions of racism, deception, and animal cruelty.

In 1835, Barnum found himself unemployed, bankrupt, and looking for a change. Barnum found his solution with a former slave, Joice Heth. Despite slavery being outlawed in New York, Barnum was able to purchase Heth for $1,000. Barnum claimed Heth was 161 years old and the nurse of late George Washington (Jacqueline Mansky, The Smithsonian Magazine). Bernth Lindfors, a professor at the University of Texas wrote in her essay, P.T. Barnum and Africa, “Barnum thus began his career in show business by going into debt to buy a superannuated female slave, who turned out to be a fraud.” Barnum exploited Heth, turning her into an exhibition and moving her from city to city often with little-to-no pay or free time. Barnum also publicly admitted that, to make her look older, he got Heth drunk and removed her teeth (Harriet A. Washington, NBC News). Unfortunately, Heth was not the only African American exploited by Barnum. Barnum also purchased a seven-foot-nine woman from South Carolina, conjoined twins, and two black brothers who were displayed as “wild men”. There are also recorded instances of Barnum performing in blackface (Harriet A. Washington, NBC News). Barnum took advantage multiple African Americans, presenting them as inferior “freaks” and making money off their genetic conditions and culture.

Despite most current acts and oddities being real, many of the original “freaks” from the first few circuses were lies constructed to deceive the audience, taking advantage of their naivety and their wallets. When Joice Heth died of natural causes in 1836, Barnum sold tickets to over 1,500 people for Heth’s public autopsy. The autopsy, performed by a renowned New York surgeon, determined that Heth was no more than 80 years old. Barnum then claimed the cadaver was fake and that Heth was still alive, traveling the world and making more money (The Joice Heth Exhibit, The Lost Museum Archive). Another act worth noting is conjoined twins, Adolph and Rudolph of the Wendt Circus. In the late 1800’s it was revealed that the conjoined twins were not conjoined at all. In fact, Rudolph had “tiny, malformed legs” and thought he and his brother would earn money and popularity by creating a “conjoined twin harness”. More acts that were proven to be fake include Bill Durks who had a fake third eye, men who posed as bearded women, ‘Fat Ladies’ who lied about their weight, Giants who lied about their height, and many more (The Human Marvels, Fake Freaks). Each of these people and the circuses they represented used fraudulent stories and costumes to trick audiences into believing they were “freaks.”

Without a doubt, the most prominent issue regarding circuses is the mistreatment of animals. Animals in the circus are often beaten, trapped, and unable to roam and socialize. Among the circuses with recorded instances of animal abuse are UniverSoul Circus, who do not provide veterinary care for their animals, have intentionally trapped a tiger’s paw in a door, and beat their elephants with bull hooks, a hook made from steel and attached to a wooden handle (Gemma Annan, Thailand Elephants). Additionally, the Cole Bros. Circus violated the Endangered Species Act, animals of the Kelly Miller Circus live in shackles, and the Jordan World Circus traps their tigers in small spaces for long periods of time (Sarah V. Schweig, There Are More Cruel Circuses in the U.S, Than You Think). Hundreds of defenseless animals are kept in trucks and traveling crates and beaten into submission for the sake of “entertainment.” These exotic and often endangered species have endured enough pain. They should be roaming freely, not confined and constantly scared of those who are meant to be taking care of them.

Despite these facts, many are arguing that through societal changes, protests, and lawsuits circuses are becoming less abusive and more inclusive. In November of 2011, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) fined both the Ringling Bros. Circus and the Barnum and Bailey Circus a steep amount of $270,000 for violating the Animal Welfare Act (Leigh Remizowski, CNN). Leigh Remizowski, a reporter for CNN writes, “The lawsuit alleged that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is in violation of the Endangered Species Act and that the circus systematically abuses and exploits elephants by using metal bullhooks to guide and control the animals, as well as chaining their legs while they are not performing.” After these fines and many protests, both circuses chose to stop using elephants in their acts and eventually closed their doors in early 2017. However, this has not solved the many issues surrounding circuses. Regardless of changing times and lawsuits, plenty of circuses still have a long way to go before becoming morally acceptable. Just eight months ago, video surfaced of a Shrine Circus animal trainer beating and stabbing their elephants during a live show (Be Their voice ??“ Protest Animal Cruelty, YouTube). If circuses are changing for the better, why is this abuse occurring all over the world?

In conclusion, the fun and family friendly appearance fades when you look behind the curtains. People and animals alike have been mistreated in the name of entertainment for long enough. Perhaps the only solution is to end circuses completely or to set new conditions: no more discrimination, no more lies, and no more animals. Unless these changes are made and enforced, circuses will continue to exploit anyone they can. After all, it was P.T. Barnum who once said: “A sucker is born every minute.”

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Animal Cruelty Under the Big Top. (2019, Jan 02). Retrieved from