Are circuses unethical?
Although circuses have adapted throughout the years, there’s no question that the tradition is unethical. First of all--and most blatantly-- sideshows or “freak shows” exploited people with mental or physical differences for profit. While some benefitted from such displays, the inherent idea behind these performances was to tease or gawk at “abnormality.” Additionally, some shows featured individuals from colonized nations as “exotic savages.”
Circuses and carnivals have also historically showcased animal performances, which often involved cruel treatment and wild animals, like elephants and lions. Even today, a majority of circus animals spend their lives in chains and cages. Due to stress, many animals have broken free and harmed or killed their handlers and audience members. Additionally, animals are usually forced to do tricks that scare them--such as jumping through hoops of fire.
Finally, while clowns are not always linked to racist caricatures, American clown traditions have a relationship to minstrel shows, and awareness of these connections is important in establishing anti-racist practices. In particular, the blackface minstrel was a character played by a white person who donned black face paint with white spots to exaggerate their eyes and lips. They would also wear oversized shoes to play into stereotypes. Although circus clowns usually have white face paint with red accents, the design looks suspiciously similar to that of minstrel clowns that perpetuated the irreparable and damaging belief in Black inferiority and White superiority.
While modern circuses have certainly adapted, the question of morality goes deeper than cosmetic changes. We still have to confront that circus history is rife with immoral and unethical practices.
Whether viewed as a business model or as pure entertainment to which a moral compass may be applied, circuses are neither inherently unethical nor incapable of adaptation to evolving business standards. If anything, circuses--which are exhibitions that aim to make a profit by entertaining the public--have demonstrated their longevity in the face of changing moral standards.
The modern circus form, an innovation by Englishman Philip Astley and popularized in the United States by Barnum and Bailey and the Ringling Brothers, has evolved. Where it once included trained wild and domesticated animals, acrobatics, and clowning, Cirque du Soleil's popularity in recent years proves that circuses can change the composition of their entertainment acts and thrive with human performers alone.
Media scrutiny and public awareness of the ethical treatment of animals has spotlighted the treatment of trained wild animals in circus organizations to positive effect. And circuses, being good corporate actors, have demonstrated a willingness to comply with regulatory oversight where it exists. In the UK, the care of circus animals is carefully controlled, including unannounced vet visits and public reports.
The cause of heightened animal awareness in circuses furthered the research of Dr. Marthe Kiley-Washington, an animal behavior expert, whose 18-month study co-sponsored by the RSPCA and the UFAW, found that 'while there are improvements that must be made, circuses do not by their nature cause suffering and distress in animals.' Additionally, circuses may even help animals through captive breeding and raising general awareness about animals.
Successful contemporary circuses like Montreal's 7 Fingers rely on 'emotional connection and experimentation' in their acts and prove that circuses are not only here to stay but need not rely solely on exhibiting animals, whether moral or not.
- The modern form of the circus was developed in 18th-century England by Philip Astley, an equestrian who showcased acrobats, jugglers, and clowns in a circular arena in between horse shows.
- As of 2020, twenty-seven countries have banned the use of wild animals in circuses.
- A 2016 Vox poll found that Americans are more afraid of clowns than climate change or terrorism.
- Dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus held its last show in May 2017, with the closure attributed to “declining sales and mounting pressures from animal rights activists,” amongst other factors.