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30 Things You Never Knew About Circuses

As it turns out, the elephants you see in circuses aren’t having as much fun as it seems.

1. In the 19th century, P.T. Barnum sent his associates to Sri Lanka to catch elephants to bring over to New York. Written accounts from the 1850s say the elephants were tied up with nooses for the 12,000-mile journey.

2. Countries like Bolivia, Peru, Greece, Cyprus, Paraguay, Colombia, Netherlands, and Slovenia have banned the use of wild animals, like elephants, in circuses.

3. Bolivia was the first country in the world to ban animals in circuses.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

4. Elephants that live in captivity live almost half as long as wild elephants.

5. Elephants walk up to 50 miles a day in the wild.

6. In circuses, elephants spend most of their lives either in chains, or traveling inside boxcars.

7. Even compared with zoo enclosures, minimum guidelines for circus cages and pens provide a lower amount of space.

8. In circuses, elephants are often housed singly, even though they are incredibly social animals who travel in herds.

9. This can have significant negative consequences for their behavior, welfare and reproduction.

10. Captive elephants often exhibit aberrant behavior such as rocking back and forth or swaying from side to side due to trauma.

11. Circuses often exchange animals. This disrupts any existing group social bonds that highly social animals, such as elephants, may have developed.

12. Circus handlers use a substance called “Wonder Dust” to hide the wounds they inflict on elephants during training.

13. The U.K. banned the use of wild animals in circuses after a case in which a circus employee was accused of repeatedly hitting an arthritic elephant with a pitchfork.

14. Loud noise is a well-known stressor in captive animals.

15. Some elephants used in circuses have been found to carry a human strain of tuberculosis, which can be easily passed on to humans.

16. In the United States, no government agency monitors animal training sessions in circuses.

17. In a study on the transport environment in six U.S. circuses, only two circuses used insulated walls and high-capacity ventilation fans to maintain internal temperatures within a safe range.

18. In the wild, elephants spend anywhere between 40–75% of their time feeding.

Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

19. Performing and training typically occupies 1–9% of the day for circus animals.

20. For the rest of the time, these animals, especially elephants, may be kept chained (shackled individually or picketed in lines) continuously for 12–23 hours per day when not performing.

21. Circus elephants who aren’t obedient or who get too old may be sold to zoos, roadside attractions, or research laboratories.

22. Penalties for elephant abuse by circuses are very weak, and persistent violators are rarely prosecuted.

23. Most circus elephants are trained by being beaten with bullhooks — long sticks with sharp metal ends, similar to fireplace pokers.

24. Elephants lacking physical exercise in zoos and circuses can become obese which, in turn, leads to joint defects and damaged feet and leg ligaments.

25. In 1916, a circus elephant named Mary was hung from a crane after she trampled her trainer after he hit her with a spear.

26. When he was diagnosed with colon cancer, Sam Simon, the co-developer of The Simpsons, bought circuses and zoos so he could shut them down.

27. Elephants have extraordinary memories and it has been demonstrated that they never forget rough treatment by human handlers.

28. Another training method for elephants involves shocking them with electric prods, called “hot shots.”

29. In 2013, India banned the use of elephants in circuses.

30. Basically, due to the nature of traveling circuses, where animal accommodation must be small, lightweight, collapsible, and fit on the back of a trailer, circuses simply cannot provide animals with the space and the environment they need to maintain physical and mental health.

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

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