Learn More About Ringling Bros.’ Cruelty

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is known for its long history of abusing animals, and it paid the largest civil penalty ever assessed against an exhibitor under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA)—$270,000—for dozens of animal-welfare violations.

An elephant handler who worked at Ringling’s breeding and training compound provided PETA with dozens of photos showing how elephants are “broken” for the circus. Still-nursing baby elephants are roped around all four legs and dragged from their mothers. The elephants scream, cry, and struggle as they’re stretched out, slammed to the ground, threatened with bullhooks (a barbaric tool that resembles a fireplace poker), and shocked with electric prods. After up to six long months of this physical and mental torment, these once curious and energetic elephants stop fighting and give up. They are broken, and most will spend the rest of their lives performing.

The elephants Ringling uses are chained inside filthy, poorly ventilated boxcars for an average of more than 26 straight hours—and sometimes for more than four days at a time—when the circus travels between cities.

Former Ringling employees have reported that elephants are routinely abused and violently beaten with bullhooks. A PETA investigator traveled with Ringling for several months through numerous states and documented routine, systemic abuse of elephants and tigers at the hands of multiple Ringling workers, including an animal superintendent and the head elephant trainer. The investigator documented that elephants swayed and rocked continuously—neurotic and abnormal behavior typically seen in animals who are suffering from extreme stress, frustration, and boredom.

At least 30 elephants, including four babies, have died since 1992, including an 8-month-old baby elephant named Riccardo who was euthanized after he fractured his hind legs when he fell from a circus pedestal. Elephants are not the only animals with Ringling who have tragically died. In 2004, a 2-year-old lion died of apparent heatstroke while the circus train crossed the Mojave Desert.

Since 2010, Ringling has had multiple elephants test positive for the human strain of tuberculosis (TB). TB is highly transmissible from elephants to humans, even without direct contact.

In 2015, Ringling announced that because of a public “mood shift” as well as local laws curtailing the use of bullhooks, it will be eliminating elephant acts by 2018. There’s no reason for the circus to delay the action one more day or to limit its decision to elephants alone: All the animals should be immediately pulled from performing.

Tigers and lions spend most of their lives in cramped transport cages. They and the zebras, llamas, goats, and horses who travel with the circus are denied everything that is natural and important to them.

Ringling plans to retire the elephants to its so-called “Center for Elephant Conservation” (CEC). Despite its grandiose name, the CEC is a breeding compound where elephants are denied any semblance of a normal life. According to the sworn testimony of the manager who is in charge of the CEC, elephants, including nursing calves and mothers in labor, are routinely chained by two legs on concrete floors for up to 18 hours a day at the CEC. Elephants still live in fear of being hit with bullhooks at the compound. And not one elephant from the CEC will ever step foot in the wild.