Circus Animals | England (Late 18th c)

1493302-6405352 - Szczech Leah - May 4, 2016 930 AM - Circus Monkey Wagon Drawn by a Horse

Circus Monkey Wagon, by Eager Free Public Library available at

By Leah Szczech

Throughout history and continuing into the present, cages have been used to contain animals: wild, exotic and domestic. A cage is an example of anthropocentrism or the idea that humans are the dominant, most important species in the world because it shows that humans have the ability to imprison other species. Cages are also a measure of how much an animal is cared for. The smaller and barer the cage is, the less humane it is, which is a way of demonstrating that animals are just wild beasts, and caring for them is not a priority. These types of cages are seen in circuses. However, some cages are large enough for the contained animals and cater to the animals’ needs, including resemblance to their natural habitat. These types of cages, or rather habitats, are seen in good zoos. The type of cage an animal is contained in shows the level of consideration humans have for the contained animals and can embody anthropocentrism if inhospitable.

The creation of cages allowed humans to capture wild animals. Many ancient rulers liked to capture exotic animals. In a online encyclopedia article about the history of animal entertainment it was stated that: “Archaeological evidence shows that lions were kept in cages in Macedonia as far back as 2,000 B.C.”4 Ancient Greeks captured wild animals to study them for education purposes. Roman emperors on the other hand captured animals for entertainment, forcing animals to fight each other or with human “gladiators” in arenas called circuses in front of an audience.4 If you could own an exotic animal, you were seen as powerful and wealthy. In an article about pets, status, and slavery in the late 18th century, the author Meacham stated that people bought animals “to serve as living symbols of their financial standing and European connections.”5 Besides showing power over other people, the owners of the animals thought that they had power over nature as well. From the same article: “planters bragged of mastering nature by taming free indigenous animals,”5 This demonstrates an anthropocentric view, that humans are the dominant species of the Earth.

Although the Roman event arenas were called circuses, the first modernized circuses were not established until the end of the 1700s.4 European explorers captured wild, exotic animals during their travels and put them in exhibits, more similar to small cages than nice habitats, that they called menageries. These menageries went mobile when entrepreneurs decided to travel the country and collect money from audiences.4

Circuses are primarily for entertainment and are not known for their great care of animals. In circuses, animals are taught tricks that are not natural behaviors in order to impress audiences then shut back into small, barren cages. In the article about entertainment animals, it was stated that trainers needed to “establish absolute dominance over their animals to prevent them from attacking. Animals usually were beaten, starved, and occasionally had their teeth pulled to render them less dangerous,”4 They were also kept in small cages to reduce agency. This again supports that idea of anthropocentrism, and that humans cared more about establishing and displaying dominance over “lesser” species than caring for them. In an article on the website of PAWS, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of animals, it was stated that about “96 percent of their [circus animals’] lives are spent in chains or cages.6 The site also stated that for most of the year circus animals are forced to travel in boxcars over large distances with “no climate control” and they eat, sleep and defecate in the same cage.6 One example of this maltreatment is from a PETA factsheet about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: “In 2004, a 2-year-old lion died from apparent heatstroke while the circus train crossed the Mojave Desert.”7 These examples indicate that circuses do not care for their animals because they keep them in inadequate cages and treat them poorly.

Improper cages can be detrimental to animals. In a book titled “The American Bird Fancier” written in 1850 the care of cage and house birds was discussed. An account of consequences due to unsuitable cages was given: “It is in the feet indeed that cage or chamber birds chiefly suffer, and they must be daily examined to see that nothing gets entangled about them, as hair thus twisted will frequently cut very deep,”3 This shows that inadequate cages can be harmful to the animals it holds. Cages should be large enough for the amount of animals it holds, should not be capable of harming the animal in any way, and if possible should resemble the animals’ natural habitat.

Animals do not like being confined in bad conditions. “Many birds sing better than when confined in a cage.”3 In poor conditions, an animal can get depressed or overwhelmed, especially when faced with gawking crowds. An account from a book titled Curious Thoughts on the History of Man written in 18th century shows this: “…There was a young one [ape] brought down from the inland country…The people that brought it down [s]aid, that, during the [s]everal months they had it, it was very compo[s]ed and took its victuals and drink quietly. But when it came to the King’s town, [s]uch amazing crowds came to [s]ee it from all quarters, that it grew [s]ullen and [s]ulky, for being [s]o expo[s]ed, would eat no victuals, and died in four or five days.”1 This is another consequence of an inadequate cage. Animals can get stressed out by crowds which is why many animals at zoos can at any time disappear into an exhibit not viewable by the public.

Zoos, like circuses, were seen in earlier civilizations. At least two centuries prior to the establishment of modern zoos by the French, Spanish and Austrians, Aztecs had their own zoos.4 Those first zoos were only collections of animals in cages, similar to circus cages, and it is unlikely that they were used for educational purposes.2 Now though, zoos have much better cages, or rather habitats, that are large enough for the animals they hold and resemble animals’ natural habitats. Animals also receive great care and attention from zookeepers. This is due to the fact that the mission of zoos now is to put the welfare of animals first and to educate the public about these animals and about conservation efforts.

Although zoos and circuses initially started off with the same kind of small, bare cages, zoos have made improvements. Now it is indisputable that good zoos care more for their animals than circuses. Zoos want to show how amazing animals are in order to promote conservation. One way they they do this by keeping them in exhibits that are similar to their natural habitat. This is a change in priorities. We are reaching the point where in terms of animal species, anthropocentrism is not as big of an issue. At first, because humans wanted to establish dominance over animals, they were treated badly and put into small cages. Now though, because people care more for the existence of species than being the dominant species, zoos and aquariums are more popular.

People have always been and will continue to be amazed by exotic animals. This explains why zoos are popular places to visit and why circuses, although they do not put care of animals first, are still around today. But the popularity of circuses and other shows starring live wild animals are on the decline as new venues with exotic animals, like aquariums and theme parks, are established.4 This is because people care more about animals’ welfare than seeing exotic animals. They would rather see animals in large exhibits that are similar to natural habitats than in small, cramped cages. People are also being educated on the mistreatment of animals and prefer to go to places where the animals are visibly treated better and live in better conditions.

People are more invested in animal welfare than ever before. More people are going to zoos than circuses and are supporting the conservation efforts of zoos. Animals are being treated well at zoos which is a huge turn-a-round from when cages were first being used. Cages at zoos have been upgraded since the first zoos and are now safer, larger and overall nicer exhibits. Cages started out as being a result of anthropocentric views and a desire for power. Now humans have made cages better because we feel that animals should be respected. As long as humans do not cave in and put the desire for power before the welfare of animals, better, hospitable habitats will remain priority and will continue to improve.

Cited Work:

1.  Adams, John. Curious Thoughts on the History of Man Chiefly Abridged or Selected from the Celebrated Works of Lord Kaimes, Lord Monboddo, Dr. Dunbar, and the ImmortalMontesquieu: … Designed to Promote a Spirit of Enquiry in the Youth of Both Sexes … By the Rev. John Adams, A.M. Dublin: 1790 Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Wisconsin Madison. Accessed April 19, 2016.

2.  Benbow, S. M. P. “Public Places To View Private Lives.” Journal Of Popular Culture 33, no. (Spring 2000 2000): 13-23. America: History & Life, EBSCOhost. Accessed April 19, 2016.

3.  Browne, D. J. The American Bird Fancier: Considered with Reference to the Breeding, Rearing, Feeding, Management, and Peculiarities of Cage and House Birds: With Remarks on Their Diseases and Remedies ; Drawn from Authentic Sources and Personal Observation. New York: Published by C.M. Saxton, 1851.

4. “Entertainment Animals – History.” Library Index. Accessed April 19, 2016.

5.  Meacham, Sarah H. “Pets, Status, and Slavery in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake.” Journal of Southern History 77, no. 3 (2011): 524. Accessed April 19, 2016.

6.  PAWS. “Enjoy the Circus? The Animals Don’t. » PAWS.” PAWS- People Helping Animals. Accessed April 20, 2016.

7.  PETA. “RinglingFactsheet.” Accessed May 3, 2016.