The RSPCA is opposed to the use of animals for any kind of entertainment, exhibition or performance where injury, pain or suffering is likely to be caused. We believe that animals used in performances must be treated with respect, and not objectified, or subjected to indignity or ridicule.
In the specific case of circuses, the RSPCA is opposed to the continued use of non-domesticated (exotic) animals, such as elephants, large cats and non-human primates (monkeys), because the requirements of circus life are not compatible with the physiological, social and behavioural needs of these animals.
Our concerns are not directed at the treatment of these animals by individual keepers. For the most part, when RSPCA inspectors visit circuses and inspect their animals against the requirements of the National Circus Standards or their State/Territory equivalent, they are satisfied with the level of compliance with those standards that they are able to assess during an inspection. The RSPCA's policy is based on the fact that no circus, no matter how well managed, can provide an appropriate environment for wild animals.
Performing circus animals are kept for prolonged periods in close confinement, in artificial social groups and are continually being transported between circus venues for the duration of their performing lives. All for the purpose of entertainment. The life of a circus animal leads to stress, boredom and often results in abnormal behaviours or stereotypes, such as repetitive pacing or swaying.
Elephants and non-human primates are highly intelligent, complex, and very social. They require a high level of stimulation to prevent them from becoming bored in a captive environment. In the wild, elephants occupy very large home ranges and will cover tens of kilometres every day moving from one feeding location to another and spending long periods of time foraging and eating. Captive big cats also require regular stimulation and show severe signs of boredom and frustration when kept in the restricted environment of a circus pen.
While exotic animals remain in circuses, any improvement in their welfare, such as the adoption of national standards, is welcomed. However, such standards reflect minimum requirements and do not address the fundamental problems of keeping wild animals in circuses. Neither do the standards set a timetable for the phasing out of wild animals in circuses.
While it is unlikely that any of the elephants currently owned by circuses in Australia will be replaced, unless there is strong and active discouragement from the local community, circuses will continue to breed and train other wild animals for the sole purpose of performing. Acting to prevent circuses using wild animals from appearing on council land sends a clear message that this activity is no longer acceptable to the Australian community.
In 2009 a review of the suitability of wild animals to live in a travelling circus was published in the journal Animal Welfare*. This review found that for non-domesticated animals to be suitable for circus life they would need to exhibit low space requirements, simple social structures, low cognitive function, non-specialist ecological requirements and an ability to be transported without adverse welfare effects. None of the commonest species exhibited by circuses, such as elephants and lions, currently meet these criteria. The study concluded that the species of non-domesticated animals commonly kept in circuses appear the least suited to a circus life.
*Iossa G, Soulsbury CD Harris S. (2009) Are wild animals suited to a travelling circus life? Animal Welfare 18: 129-140
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