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The underside of the big top

ACOs can step into the spotlight to help prevent circus cruelty

From Animal Sheltering Magazine January/February 2014

Cindy Machado, shown presenting a workshop on circus inspections last year at Animal Care Expo, uses her inflatable elephant as a visual aid when teaching ACOs about what to look for when they check on animal care at circuses. After using bullhooks to hook and poke elephants on the hind legs to make them move more quickly, circus trainers sometimes try to mask the wounds with a gray powder known as “wonder dust.” After being discarded by a traveling circus, Babe spent 14 years at Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Murchison, Texas, before her death in 2010. Staff treated her injuries—likely incurred when she was shipped from Africa, and made worse by performing—and provided a comfortable life that enabled Babe to engage in natural behaviors.

“It was kind of an easy day for me when it started,” recalls Blayne Doyle, now a retired police officer, “and then it turned into … one of the days I can’t seem to ever get rid of.”

Back in February 1992, Doyle—who normally worked for his department’s street crimes unit—was assigned to direct traffic at a traveling circus set up in a college parking lot in Palm Bay, Fla.

Between Saturday matinees, the circus offered rides on the backs of elephants. An Asian elephant named Janet was carrying a woman and five children when, according to Doyle, she decided to quit the circus.

Janet knocked down her trainer as well as some circus equipment in the center ring, then ran out through the side of the tent and started smashing a car in the parking lot, Doyle says. When she saw Doyle, Janet grabbed him with her trunk and flung him. At one point the elephant “picked me up and threw me between her front legs and tried to do a headstand on top of me”—a fate he escaped only because a circus worker distracted Janet by hurling a pitchfork at her.

A circus worker manipulated another elephant to push Janet against the side of a semi-truck, which enabled the riders to escape. But Janet’s head went through the truck’s aluminum side, ripping her trunk. “She was bleeding really bad, and screaming,” Doyle says. Responding to a request from her trainer, he began shooting her with his standard 9 mm pistol, firing about 35 shots, but she ran back in the circus pit and started crushing the bleachers; people were throwing their children off the back of the stands and running.Janet moved toward the front of the tent. More officers arrived, shooting her until she went down on her side. A SWAT team member, armed with a rifle that fired armor-piercing bullets, shot her twice in the head to kill her.

It was a horrific end to Janet’s life. The incident injured six people, prompted Florida game officials to cite the circus for failing to control wildlife, attracted national attention, and turned Doyle into a spokesman on the dangers of performing animals. He’s written letters, made speeches, appeared on television, and testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee.

“Exotic animals that are dangerous shouldn’t be allowed in the public,” he says. “I use the analogy, if I filled my swimming pool full of alligators and promised you that they wouldn’t bite, would you let your kids go swimming in there?”

A World of Illusion

There have been similar incidents over the years. Humane advocates say they represent just one part of the many problems caused by circuses that use performing animals.

Commonly forced to perform physically unnatural tricks and stand in chains in cramped trailers or train cars for long periods, elephants develop problems with their feet and legs, which may cause deadly foot disorders and arthritis. Animals are often deprived of water as part of their training and handling, and food quality may be poor as circuses may cut corners on animal care. Experts agree that the process of training animals to do circus tricks is unnatural and inhumane.

There are two ways to train an elephant: positive reinforcement or punishment, explains Ed Stewart, president and co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a California-based nonprofit that operates wildlife sanctuaries for exotic animals, including former circus animals.

The basis of positive reinforcement is that if an elephant doesn’t want to perform a behavior, she can simply walk away. So the positive-reinforcement approach can’t guarantee, for example, that the elephant will do a headstand on command during a performance.Consequently, training based on punishment is a standard circus industry practice. “What you have to do in circuses is dominate elephants and make them afraid of you, and the way you do that is you train them harshly behind the scenes where nobody can see it,” Stewart says. “That’s been documented over and over and over again.” Trainers have been known to use electric shocks, ropes, pulleys, and bullhooks—sharp, heavy, steel-tipped implements that resemble a fireplace poker and can injure and frighten animals.

Given the mistreatment that occurs in such circuses, Stewart says he’s disappointed that the shows continue to operate. “They’re geniuses of public relations and deception,” he says. “That’s the only reason they’re still in business.”

He scoffs at the notion that circuses are somehow “educational.” Any child whose first exposure to elephants is seeing one standing on her head in an arena “has a long hole to climb out of as far as real education about elephants,” Stewart says. “The worst thing you can do is show people things like that.”

Scott Giacoppo, a veteran circus inspector and vice president of external affairs for the Washington Humane Society in the nation’s capital, objects to the idea that circuses offer any genuine glimpse of wild animals’ real nature—as if elephants in the wild would ever form a conga line. “I’ve never seen a tiger look for a fire to jump through, or balance on a chair,” he says. “It’s not a true representation.”

While the Michael Vick case in 2007 called the public’s attention to the horrors of dogfighting, Giacoppo says, so far there’s been no comparable “tipping point” for circus cruelty. Even a highly publicized 1994 incident in Honolulu, in which an elephant named Tyke broke out of a circus and wreaked havoc in and around a downtown arena before being shot and killed by police, didn’t spell the end. The public still doesn’t view the circus the way it now views dogfighting, or even the way it views other forms of institutionalized cruelty, like vivisection or factory farming, Giacoppo says.

Whose Job Is It?

Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture licenses circuses, it doesn’t have nearly enough staff to inspect every operation on a regular basis, says Debbie Leahy, HSUS policy manager for captive wildlife protection. But circuses must abide by the particular state or local law where they are performing, which can be stricter than the minimal federal standards.Cindy Machado, a captain at Marin Humane Society in California who offers training on inspecting circuses, says ACOs need to view circus cruelties as “the same cruelties that we fight every day, whether it’s confinement, or tethering, or inhumane handling or training methods. We should really be all over that.”

But it’s not a responsibility that humane officers are always aware of. “If you asked a random sampling of animal control officers across the country, ‘When’s the last time you inspected a circus?’ some may say, ‘Every time they come to town.’ Others say, ‘I didn’t know they could be inspected,’” says Mark Kumpf, director of the Montgomery County Animal Resource Center in Dayton, Ohio.

The Tyke incident prompted many jurisdictions to reexamine their animal control ordinances, enforcement issues, and permitting processes, Machado says. Today she senses that more jurisdictions are passing effective laws, and she gets calls weekly from ACOs who want to know what they should look for when the circus comes to town. Localities are getting creative in their approaches to regulating circuses, she says: Communities have passed bullhook bans, for example, or applied their anti-tethering laws to elephant chaining.

Agencies tend to be successful when they’re enforcing a local ordinance that’s in line with the community’s needs, Machado says. Marin County has an extensive ordinance that allows authorities to establish restrictions and conditions on any animal exhibit, not just circuses. Officials strove to achieve the right mix of animal and human safety, and Machado believes the resulting ordinance enables the county to be proactive when there’s an exotic animal display that might cause concern. A few years ago when a local fair wanted to bring in performing sea lions, for example, Machado and her staff researched the topic and developed permit restrictions aimed at both protecting public safety and temporarily ensuring better treatment for the sea lions.

The Marin County ordinance grew out of months of negotiations with a large circus that a local Rotary Club wanted to bring to Novato in 1997. Machado says the ordinance addresses the individual needs of every species of animal, from elephants to reptiles, and put Marin County at the forefront of regulating circuses.

The county’s approach is that if it can’t stop the inhumane treatment that occurs, “at least we can make this the best day that these animals have ever experienced,” Machado says. Horses who had spent months tied in trailers were suddenly allowed to run free in an arena for exercise when they came to Marin County, and a pygmy hippo who had been traveling around the country with no water environment got to be in a swimming pool.

Though Marin County doesn’t ban the display of animals, it’s had no circuses with performing animals since 1997. Machado believes strong enforcement of a strictly regulated permit system deters them from coming.

Uphill Battles

Officers will likely encounter obstacles as they try to inspect circuses. “I can tell you from my own firsthand experience, circuses do not like to be inspected, despite what they say,” Machado says.

Smaller circuses tend to be secretive about their itineraries, making it difficult to know when they’ll appear in town. (California has addressed this by requiring circuses to give 14 days advance notice to the animal control agency in the jurisdiction where they’ll be performing.) Giacoppo notes that officers can be hampered by the limitations of the law. In Washington, D.C., the law alone doesn’t authorize him to do inspections; he needs to get the circus operators’ consent, or go in with a warrant, which requires probable cause. In an ideal world, he says, any agency with the authority to enforce animal cruelty laws would also have the authority to do uninhibited and unannounced circus inspections.

Circus operators’ reactions to inspectors vary widely, Giacoppo says. Some roll out the welcome mat, saying, “Yeah, sure. Come on, let’s go—where do you want to start?”

But if operators want to stand at the entrance and chat a while when an officer shows up, he says, that could be a sign that workers are scrambling to clean up the animal area. “So what I always do is I walk and talk,” Giacoppo says, explaining that he’ll start the conversation as he and the circus representative are walking toward the animal enclosures.

Most ACOs will never be the authorities on exotic animals they likely see only once every couple of years, Kumpf says, so it’s helpful to consult experts who have experience with exotics to answer questions. An exotic circus animal is “not just a big dog or cat you’re dealing with,” Kumpf says. “It’s a specialized animal, and oftentimes you have to call on additional, specialized folks to help you with them.”

Kumpf, who started teaching ACOs how to inspect circus and other exotic animals in the 1990s when he worked in Norfolk, Va., says the availability of training varies along with the officers’ responsibilities. In some jurisdictions, ACOs deal with everything—dogs, cats, wildlife, exotics, pet stores, circuses, and roadside zoos. In Ohio, in contrast, dog wardens are authorized to deal only with dogs. Some officers may get thrown into circus inspections and have to learn on the job, but Kumpf’s advice for ACOs is to seek out the appropriate training before you need it.

At a bare minimum, Giacoppo says, ACOs should be comfortable conducting basic inspections of circus animals such as elephants, and should know the common “hook points” where scars might indicate the animal has been hit with a bullhook. (Typical hook points include the armpits, elbows, behind the ears, back of the legs, and under the chin.) Inspectors should also be able to detect “wonder dust,” a grayish powder used to conceal bullhook lacerations. Basic inspections also include the ACO (accompanied by the handler) getting the elephant to lift each foot so the nails and foot pads can be examined.

Officers should ask if the circus has any animals receiving medical treatment. If that’s the case, Machado recommends that ACOs find out what the animals are taking, ask to see the medications, and examine the labels for instructions and expiration dates.

Machado advises officers to gather as much information as possible beforehand, then take lots of photos and video, because it’s easy to miss things during the inspection. “Go in there as any other fact-finder,” looking at each animal to see how they move, and the condition of their feet and bodies. Who are the handlers? What type of equipment are they using? Are the animals fit for the act they’ll be performing?

If a problem with one of an elephant’s nails is detected, for example, it might not be severe enough to stop a performance or prompt a citation, Giacoppo explains. But ideally the inspector will document the condition and send the information to the next jurisdiction the circus is scheduled to play—alerting officers there to keep an eye on the problem. “I don’t think there’s enough of that going on,” Giacoppo says.

Sadly, Machado says she hasn’t seen any overall improvement in the treatment of circus animals over the past 25 years or so. “It kind of comes and goes, depending on what the circus is, but the issues are the same: really inhumane training regimens for traveling animals, confinement,” she says. “… Some of the larger circuses only have a two-week break, and the rest of the time those animals are in transit.”

Still, she believes ACOs can play a critical role in ensuring that animals in circuses are treated more humanely. Enforcement agencies need to know when circuses come into their town and be backed by an ordinance that’s well-suited to the community, and the officers need to stay focused on the evidence at hand, Machado says. “It comes down to the evidence. What are we seeing? What did we collect? What did we take pictures of?” By working with city and county managers in implementing a proactive approach, ACOs can be at the forefront of making a real difference in the lives of animals in circuses.​


About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.