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An Animal Behaviorist Visited Ringling Bros. Circus, and This Is What He Saw

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Posted October 6, 2016 by Kim Johnson

Animal behaviorist Jay Pratte has devoted his life to helping captive animals, and he’s focused much of his attention on big cats. After observing two performances of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Red Unit in Lincoln, Nebraska, Pratte documented his observations in his “Big-Cat Report.” His conclusions show what tigers who are forced to travel and perform endure day after day. 

ringling tigers in circus

Small Cages and Hot Concrete

In the wild, tigers spend their days foraging, hunting, marking their territory, and searching for mates. Their natural habitat is complex and covers a large area, providing constant mental stimulation.

According to Pratte’s findings, the arena parking lot where Ringling housed tigers on sweltering concrete in full sun was the complete opposite. Over half of the cats had cracked paw pads from the harsh surface. Some suffered from severe hygromas (fluid-filled swellings) from constantly lying on hard surfaces—and Pratte didn’t see any evidence that the condition was being treated, putting the animals at risk of developing severe inflammation, infection, and other serious conditions. 

ringling tiger injury

“I observed several cats limping, walking gingerly and carefully to avoid painful jolts, and struggling to actually stand up or to perform cued behaviors during a show.”

Jay Pratte

Tigers love water and will seek out shaded areas to escape from the heat when they can. But in the enclosures Pratte observed, there were no pools or adequate shade provided for relief. In the afternoon, the cats had access to uncooled indoor cages, but not in the morning, when they were kept outdoors as temperatures reached nearly 90 degrees.

Boredom and Stress

Because Ringling confines big cats to small, barren enclosures most of the time, the animals endure extended periods of inactivity. Most are overweight, and some are obese. Obesity puts big cats at risk of developing arthritis, liver and kidney failure, and heart disease. According to Pratte, the heavier cats were panting constantly throughout the day and clearly in distress.

Several of the cats would be rated “5” on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Felid Taxon Advisory Group’s body-condition chart.

Several of the cats would be rated “5” on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Felid Taxon Advisory Group’s body-condition chart.

He also observed tigers who were pacing continually, over-grooming, or obsessively licking their paws—all examples of neurotic, repetitive behavior called “zoochosis,” which indicates intense frustration and psychological distress in animals.

Aside from a few logs, the enclosures were missing even simple objects like a pool, toys, or bones to keep the big cats occupied. When Pratte asked Ringling’s tiger handlers why the enclosures lacked any form of enrichment, they said that they hadn’t had time to provide it. Since this Ringling stop lasted nearly a week, the tigers apparently went five to six days with little to no mental stimulation. 

ringling tigers in cages

Tigers’ lives on the road—where they’re confined to cramped cages for long periods of time and not given opportunities to exercise or play—aren’t any better. They’re forced to eat, drink, sleep, poop, and pee all in the same small space.

Tigers Crowded Together

Tigers are solitary animals who roam over vast territories in the wild, but Ringling jams at least three of them into each enclosure. These areas are much smaller than even the minimal square footage recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for one individual, let alone multiple big cats. They’re unable to avoid one another, causing fights between them. In just two hours, Pratte witnessed three aggressive clashes among tigers—including one that resulted in an injury—and noted scars all over the cats, likely from past altercations.

ringling tiger with scars

Many of the tigers had healed and scabbed scars, most likely the result of fights.

Forcing tigers to share space leaves nowhere for them to run to when fights occur, putting them at risk for injury and causing stress and long-term psychological issues.

Behavioral Breakdowns

At an early age, animals used by circuses are taken away from their mothers and forced to interact with humans. Tigers are whipped into performing and punished for simply behaving according to their nature. They’re semi-nocturnal, yet they are carted around and often forced to perform when their genetic programming is calling for sleep.

These big cats live under constant stress, making it that much more likely that they’ll lash out in frustration and injure or kill a human. A Ringling employee was mauled when three tigers escaped from a cage in a Chicago parking lot. In another incident, a Ringling trainer sustained severe wounds after a tiger grabbed him by the head and dragged him around the ring. In the U.S. alone, 128 captive cats and 24 humans have died and 270 humans have been injured since 1990.

ringling tigers frightened

Pratte stated that the “hunched shoulders, ears-back position is anticipatory of conflict or tension.”

According to Pratte, Ringling forced tigers to perform stressful tricks by using violent punishment and intimidation. Trainers yelled at the cats and banged on their cages. Long prods were used to force them to move in specific directions or deter them from coming too close to another animal or human.

The cats flinched and retreated when trainers raised their prods or whips. When the animals lashed out at Ringling trainer Tabayara “Taba” Maluenda, Taba yelled, struck them, or startled them by cracking his whip.

ringling tigers with trainer

Together, We Can End This 

Circuses enslave and abuse animals for “entertainment”—but public opinion is rapidly changing. A growing number of countries, states, and municipalities around the world have banned the use of wild animals in circuses. Never go to any circus that uses animals. 

No animal belongs in the circus. Urge Ringling Bros. to pull all animals off the road and send them to true sanctuaries!

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