The first law ever to ban use of domestic animals in circuses went into effect in July, 2009 in Bolivia. President Evo Morales signed into law a bill that defines use of domestic as well as wild animals in circuses and the conditions in which they are kept as animal cruelty.
There is a one year grace period. The new law authorizes regulations for the confiscation of animals held by circuses and sanctions for violations.
The law was prompted in part by an investigation by Animal Defenders International (ADI) which revealed lions kept in small cages in a truck, 3 bears held in a 2.5x3m enclosure, and a mandrill in a tiny cage. The only time these animals are released from confinement is when they walk to the ring for their brief performance. ADI found circus animals in Bolivia are regularly subjected to abuse by handlers.
There are believed to be 50 animals in use by circuses at present in Bolivia. There is concern circus operators will simply kill them in view of the new law. There is an effort underway to rescue as many as possible.
A number of other countries now ban the use of wild or exotic animals in circuses including Austria, Israel, Singapore, Costa Rica, and Croatia. Denmark, India, and Finland have banned some wild or exotic animals in circuses. But Bolivia is the first country to ban the use of all animals in circuses.
The bill’s sponsor in the Bolivian Congress was Member of Congress Ximena Flores.
For more on the treatment of circus animals, watch the video below.
The Animal Welfare Act
In the United States circuses are generally regulated as exhibitors. The Animal Welfare Act requires circuses to be licensed and subject to periodic inspections by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The regulations, 9 CFR 1.1, 2.4, 2.131, Subpart D 3.75-.92, and Subpart F 3.125-3.142, however, provide only vague, very minimal standards for keeping animals for exhibitions. The focus of the few regulations is public or worker safety and disease prevention. Cages in which animals are housed 24/7 are permissible. For example, 9 CFR 3.128 requires only an "[e]nclosure…. constructed and maintained so as to provide sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement."
Also, there are few APHIS inspectors for the thousands of animal exhibitors including circuses and zoos, as well as other businesses using animals that are supposedly regulated by AWA, research facilities and commercial pet breeders. And, many APHIS inspectors are simply not adequately trained in the care and handling of wild animals.
The AWA regulations do not apply at all to birds, reptiles or other amphibians. Nor do they apply to horses and ponies used in many circuses.
The AWA does not have any specific qualifications or regulations for caregivers or trainers who handle circus animals. The AWA prohibits "physical abuse", but it is not clear what that means. 9 C.F.R. 2.131 There are no regulations prohibiting the use of bullhooks, prods, whips and other such devices. How many times can a lion or elephant be hit or prodded before it constitutes "physical abuse"? And, anyway, who will know about and stop the physical abuse?
The only other AWA regulation really touching on handling and physical treatment of the animals cautions against causing "trauma, overheating, excessive cooling, behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort." This is no explanation of these terms or what behavior or handling should be avoided.
The regulations state that "[y]oung or immature animals shall not be exposed to rough or excessive public handling or exhibited for periods of time which would be detrimental to their health or well-being." Does this mean adult animals can be so handled? 9 C.F.R. 2.131
The regulations ban use of drugs and otherwise state "[a]nimals shall be exhibited only for periods of time and under conditions consistent with their good health and well-being." 9 C.F.R. 2.131 The behavior by a circus operator or employee that would violate this provision is anyone’s guess.
State laws concerning circuses
There are a hodge podge of state laws that attempt to protect circus animals from some abuse.
Louisiana, for example, prohibits the killing of circus animals for sport. The law also prohibits the sale, donation, or transfer of circus animals for use in any business or activity where they may be intentionally killed for sport. La. R.S. 14:102.20.
Florida, Fl. Stat. §877.16 prohibits the exhibition for pay or compensation "any crippled or physically distorted, malformed, or disfigured beast, bird, or animal in any circus".
Ohio law bans use of "twisted wire snaffles, unpadded bucking straps, unpadded flank straps, electric or other prods, or similar devices." ORC §959.20
Wisconsin, Wis. Stat. § 951.07, prohibits the use of "a bristle bur, tack bur or like device; or a poling device used to train a horse to jump which is charged with electricity or to which have been affixed nails, tacks or other sharp points".
Unlike the AWA, Alaska has a law that specifically addresses the use of elephants in exhibitions including circuses. A permit is required to "possess, import or export" an elephant. The facilities for the elephant must be such that the animal can be maintained in "humane conditions". Alaska Stat. § 16.40.060.
Many state laws that even mention circus animals do so only to say they are exempt from prohibitions against display or exhibition of wild animals or use of them to solicit money, in advertising, as prizes or for entertainment.
Connecticut, Conn. Gen. Stat. §53-250; Massachusetts, ALM GL ch. 272, §77B both have such laws.
The Washington, D.C. code does exempt circuses from restrictions but states the Mayor retains the authority to restrict the movement of any prohibited animal into the District and the conditions under which those movements are made. D.C. Code § 8-1808.
Montana regulates zoos and other exhibitions of animals but not traveling circuses. MT. Code § 87-4-801
Texas has laws governing standards for humane treatment of circus animals but specifically exempts USDA licensed circuses that provide proof of inspections at least once a year. Tex. Occ. Code §§2152.001, .052.
Several state laws specifically exempt circus animals from regulations governing the keeping and handling of dangerous or wild animals:
Alabama, Code of Ala. § 9-11-328; Arizona, A.A.C. § R12-4-407; Arkansas, 002 00 CARR 001, Florida, Fla. Stat. § 379.3761; Minnesota, Minn. Stat. §346.155; Texas, Tex. Health & Safety Code §822.102 (except circus animals involved in a quarantine for ticks in which case a permit indicating they have been inspected and treated must accompany them throughout the state, Tex. Agric. Code §§167.026, .027); Kansas, K.S.A. § 32-1308; K.S.A. § 32-1308; K.A.R. § 115-20-4; Indiana, Ind. Code §14-22-26-1;-3; 12 IAC 9-10-20; Maine, 12 M.R.S. § 10001 ; Michigan, MCLS §287.1122; Maryland, Md. HEALTH-GENERAL Code §18-219; Md. CRIMINAL LAW Code §10-621; Minnesota, Minn. Stat. § 97A.041; Minn. R. 1715.0020, 6244.2200,6244.2400; Mississippi, Miss. Code §49-8-7; CMSR 19-000(circus must apply for exemption from permitting requirements); Missouri, §578.023 R.S.Mo.; Nebraska, R.R.S. Neb. §54-2305; Nevada, NAC 504.486; Illinois,720 ILCS 585/1 (though escape proof enclosures are required); Oklahoma, 29 Okl. St. §4-107.1; Iowa, Iowa Code §§717F.1, 717F.7 (as long as the circus obtains a permit from the city where the performance is held); Wisconsin, Wis. Stat. §169.04; Pennsylvania, 34 Pa. Const. Stat. 2965(nationally recognized circus); South Carolina, S.C. Code §50-16-40; Virginia, 4 Va. Admin. Code §15-30-40(as long as Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries is notified of the circus); Washington, WA Rev. Code §16.30.020.
More and more states are requiring circuses to be licensed or obtain a permit:
Alaska, 5 Alaska Admin. Code 92.035 (non-indigenous game or indigenous animals imported into the state); California (requires circuses to notify local animal control of upcoming performance and also has regulations governing the care and treatment of circus animals) Cal Health & Saf Code § 25989.1; 14 CCR 671.2 ,17 CCR 30074.1; Delaware, 3 Del. C. §7202 et seq., 30 Del. C. §2301; CDR 13-100-012 (housing for the animals must be inspected prior to issuance of a permit and "creatures must be receiving proper care… humane treatment and veterinary treatment, if required. The State veterinarian may consult with the local Society for tile Protection of Cruelty to Animals (the "S.P.C.A.") to enforce the provisions of this rule"); Georgia, O.C.G.A. §§ 27-2-13, 27-5-4,-5, -6 (if the circus donates 10% of the proceeds for "charitable uses in the state, the circus " shall not be required to purchase a wild animal license but shall be required to obtain the license, at no charge, from the department; provided, however, all other provisions of this chapter and all regulations relating to the humane handling, care, and confinement of wild animals must be complied with"); Idaho, §36-701,IDAPA 02.04.27.101; 13.01.10.010, 13.01.10.400 (requirements for caging and humane treatment); Kentucky, 301 KAR 2:081, 2:082; 302 KAR 20:040; Louisiana, LAC 76:V.115, (bears, wolves, mountain lions and non-human primates); New Hampshire, RSA 207:14; N.H. Admin. Rules, Fis 810.01, .02, .07 (regulations for housing and treatment except for animals already covered by USDA license); New Jersey, N.J.A.C. 7:25-4.6, .14-.15; New Mexico, NMAC 220.127.116.11 (a permit is required but state law provides for expedited approval of circuses in the state temporarily); New York, NY CLS ECL §§11-0103, -0515; 6 NYCRR §§175.2, 180.1; North Carolina, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 106-516.1 (requires permit for circuses to perform in counties having county fairs); N.C. Gen. Stat. § 153A-131- N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-187(counties and cities may ban or regulate dangerous animals ); N.C. Gen. Stat. § 113-272.5, –274, -291.3 et seq;, 15A N.C.A.C. 10H (captivity license or permit may be required);.N.C. Gen. Stat. §§19A-10, 11 et seq. (no black bears allowed); North Dakota, N.D. Cent. Code, §53-05-03, §36-01-00.1; N.D. Admin. Code 48-12-01.1-01, -04, -05, -07, -10, -13; 48-12-02.1-01 (requires circus promoters to file a copy of the contract in the county where the performance is to take place and otherwise regulates housing of animals); Ohio, O.R.S.§3765.01, (provides that a "proprietor, or his agent, of a traveling public show, shall not exhibit a natural or artificial curiosity, or exhibit horsemanship in a circus, or otherwise, for a price, until a permit has been obtained from the county auditor of the county in which it is intended to exhibit"); Rhode Island, R.I. Gen. Laws §4-18-3; CRIR 12-020-030; South Dakota, S.D. Codified Laws §40-14-2; ARSD 12:68:18:03, 12:68:18:03.01-.06; Tennessee, Tenn. Code §§70-4-401 et seq.;Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. R. 1660-1-18-.02, -.04 (permitting scheme with regulations for care of exotic animals); Utah, U.A.C. R657-3, et seq.;-18 U.A.C. R657-53-24 (animals must be kept in humane and healthy conditions); Vermont, 31 V.S.A. §§404, 406; 10 V.S.A. §§10, 4709; Wyoming, Wyo. Stat. §33-6-101.
In Oregon, under a 2009 law, circuses are no longer exempt from state permitting requirements and other regulations for possession and handling of wild animals. ORS 609.315; ORS § 609.305-.335; Or. Admin. R. 603-011-0381.
There are, of course, state and local animal cruelty laws. These laws are rarely invoked to protect circus animals. Colorado specifically exempts circus animals from its animal protection laws. C.R.S. 35-80-103. A 2008 Utah law states circus animals are not animals and instead are "creatures" not subject to protection under the state’s animal cruelty law. Utah Code § 76-9-301