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Natural Lives of Circus Animals


In the wild, bears do not ride bicycles or dance, elephants do not balance on platforms, and lions and tigers do not jump through flaming hoops. Instead, they form complex and nurturing relationships and play important roles in our ecosystem.

Elephants | Bears | Lions | Tigers | Chimpanzees



Elephants live over 70 years in their natural habitat; the average life span of a captive elephant is 14 years (captivity-induced foot problems and arthritis are the most common reasons for euthanasia in captive elephants).

Elephants walk up to 50 miles each day in the wild.

Elephants have the largest brain of all mammals, and use tools to swat flies, scratch, and sweep paths, and mud and leaves to protect their skin (they have surprisingly sensitive skin-they are able to feel an insect bite). They have commonly learned to understand 60 words in captivity.

Very close matriarchal family groups form elephant communities, and each family is connected to others by their affection for them.

Elephants have been known to cradle the skulls of dead relatives and rock back and forth.

Complex vocalizations characterize elephant communication-they call to each other when they're eating, moving, or calling a young elephant that has strayed, and cry from pain, frustration, and sadness. Mother elephants quietly hum and sing to their babies to keep them happy.

Every member of the family group helps take care of babies and other young elephants, and is gentle and tolerant of them.

Young elephants stay with their families for about 15 years, learning important skills and developing relationships.

Elephants are extremely social and affectionate, and are sensitive, individual, and intelligent.

Recommended reading:

When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals by Susan McCarthy, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

A study of the complex emotional lives of animals provides fascinating insights into and anecdotes about the existence of animal emotion and offers a compelling analysis of the ways in which humans treat animals


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Brown bears usually have two or three cubs at a time; the cubs stay with their mothers for about three years.

Bears are not malicious creatures, and usually try to avoid conflict with humans unless they are forced into it. Bears can coexist peacefully with humans as long as they are not shot, harassed, or otherwise abused; they will habituate to their surroundings, whether there are people in them or not.

They eat berries, nuts, and other vegetation, they fish with their sensitive front paws, and hunt caribou, moose, and other herd animals.

Bears are not territorial, and when they meet other families from their area, there are complex social exchanges. They have a social structure within their family group that consists of a dominance hierarchy ranging from the strongest male to the smallest cub.

Bears communicate by seeing, touching, vocalizing, and smelling. This communication helps bears live peacefully together, relieves tension, and helps mother bears keep track of their cubs. Cubs will cry for their mothers when separated and scared. This communication includes soft touching, aggressive posturing, salivating, yawning, vocalizing, and other displays. Bears also spend a lot of time playing; wrestling is common between cubs, particularly siblings.

Bears are easily startled or frightened by new objects or situations. If given the opportunity, the bear will later investigate whatever initially startled them, and eventually get used to it. In circuses, however, the setting is constantly changing, and bears are continually forced to perform unnatural, dangerous, and difficult tasks. This in itself can be extremely stressful for the bears; the physical abuse then becomes another complicating factor.

These curious and intelligent creatures can go insane from the torture of being confined, beaten, and forced to perform.

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Lions are very social-the females hunt in packs, providing food for the male(s) and cubs. The entire pride takes care of cubs. Females usually stay with their pride for their entire lives, while males leave to hunt on their own or find a pride at the age of two.

Lions have dexterous front paws with retractable claws and soft paw pads in order not to make noise when hunting, and use their dewclaws as toothpicks.

"King of Beasts" is an inaccurate term, because lions will run from many things, including elephants and rhinoceroses.

Lions communicate by signaling with their tails, roaring (lions roar the most of any species), rubbing each other in greeting, cubs play, and male lions spray or scratch trees to mark their territory. They will sometimes fight over food, but then will lick each other's wounds after their meal. Lions have been known to share food with a nomadic male. These are social, strategic, and majestic animals that should not be forced into a life of misery.

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Tiger populations in the wild are severely in danger of extinction due to habitat loss and poaching. The captive tiger population cannot be of help because it is riddled with genetic disease and other ailments from poor breeding, inbreeding, and mistreatment.

Young tigers start hunting when they are one, but do not leave their mothers until they are three years old.

Tigers need at least 190 square miles of habitat in order to roam and hunt. Circuses keep these beautiful and rare animals contained and in extreme stress and pain.

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Chimpanzees share over 98% of their DNA structure with humans, making them our closest relatives.

Chimps have a social structure that is very similar to ours, with long childhoods, close family attachments, and complex communication that includes body language, rituals, touching, and vocalizations. They crave contact with others, and have been known to get depressed or go insane when isolated. Even dolls and toys such as ropes and balls can cheer them up considerably.

Our capacity to communicate with chimpanzees is unparalleled. Many chimps have been taught hundreds of words in American Sign Language (ASL), and researchers have discovered that chimps have emotions and relationships with each other that are very humanlike.

Patti, a chimp living in a sanctuary, has been known to create artwork. A picture of her drawing of a bird is available at http://www.censusproject.com/pattisbird.html.

Researchers watching young chimps play watched one chimp break a toy. The researcher went into the room, and asked both chimps, in ASL, who broke the toy. The offending chimp signed, "He did it."

Clearly, these intelligent and emotional creatures suffer tremendously from the isolation, constant pain, stress, and fear that is circus life.

Recommended reading:

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City Won’t Rent Space in Center to Circus, Albuquerque Journal, July 25, 2003
(subscription required)


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