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What is the RSPCA’s view on the use of animals in circuses?

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 lions and non-human primates (monkeys), because the requirements of circus life are not compatible with the physiological, social and behavioural needs of these animals. The RSPCA’s policy is based on evidence 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. Even when wild animals have been captive-bred for many generations they still retain their ‘wildness’ and should not be considered domesticated.

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. Captive lions also require regular stimulation and show severe signs of boredom and frustration when kept in the restricted environment of a circus pen.

Unless there is strong and active discouragement from the local community, circuses will continue to breed and train wild animals for the sole purpose of performing. There is an increasing trend worldwide for a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, with 45 countries imposing national or local bans, with animal welfare cited as the main reason. Many local councils throughout Australia have prohibited circuses with exotic animals and in some cases, circuses with any animals from performing on council park lands. The Australian Capital Territory passed legislation to prohibit circuses with exotic animals over twenty years ago. Supporting action 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.

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.

Further reading

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 exotic animals exhibited by Australian circuses, such as monkeys 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.

A more recent report in 2016, which involved reviewing relevant legislation and scientific papers, as well as contacting over 650 experts and organisations around the world including trainers, circus owners, researchers and animal advocates found that the welfare of wild animals in travelling circuses is compromised. The report found travelling environments limited appropriate social interactions, restricted normal behaviours and were unable to provide adequate enrichment. Training and performances were also not considered to be an appropriate substitute, or able to overcome, the limitations imposed by the inadequate environment.

​More detailed information can be found in the attached RSPCA Information Paper – Use of exotic animals in Australian circuses.


Iossa G, Soulsbury CD Harris S. (2009) Are wild animals suited to a travelling circus life? Animal Welfare 18: 129-140

Dorning J, Harris S & Pickett H. (2016) The welfare of wild animals in travelling circuses. Report for the Welsh Government. (accessed Oct 8 2019)

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Updated on October 8, 2019
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