In recent years, traditional circuses have been coming under the spotlight – and a lot of criticism – for their use of wild animals in their performances. Horrific stories of animal cruelty have emerged over the last 30 years, and campaigners have fought tirelessly to end the practice of using magnificent wild animals for the entertainment of the paying public. Over the last three decades, circuses have been in decline, partly due to other forms of media proving more popular, but much has to do with these reports of animal cruelty.
In the United States, activist groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) targeted circus operators Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey with campaigns and lawsuits. Ringling decided to phase out its elephants, stating this mood shift in consumers, but continued using lions, tigers, horses and other animals. As a result, ticket sales declined massively and, in 2017, Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey shut down after operating for 146 years.
In the UK, just last month Environment Minister Michael Gove announced a new Bill banning the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. The Bill recognises that the use of wild animals in travelling circuses has no place in modern society and does nothing to further the conservation or our understanding of wild animals. Introducing the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, Michael Gove said:
“Travelling circuses are no place for wild animals in the 21st century and I am pleased that this legislation will put an end to this practice for good. Today’s announcement follows other measures we have taken to strengthen our position as a world leader on animal protection. This includes our ban on ivory sales to protect elephants, and delivering Finn’s Law to strengthen the protection of service animals.”
So what does the future hold for circuses? Well established organisations such as Cirque du Soleil have shown the way forward with stunning visual displays of acrobatics, strength and agility, with not a wild animal in sight. These spectacular shows pack audiences, and travel round the world to perform at the largest venues. And the company grows from strength to strength.
In Germany, technology has taken over, with the arrival of circus operator Circus Roncalli’s giant animal holograms. At performances, an elephant stands before the audience, its ears flapping and trunk wagging. It hoists up its hind legs as the crowd applauds, and then it disappears. The elephant, like the other animals featured in Circus Roncalli, is a 3-D hologram—a tech-savvy effort to preserve the flavour of historic circuses while eliminating concerns of animal cruelty.
Circus Roncalli was founded in 1976 and began phasing out animal performances in the 1990s. Since 2018, the show has featured no live animals, turning instead to holographic projections with 360-degree visibility for spectators seated around the ring. According to the technicians, it takes 11 projectors to achieve the effect. Some of the holographic acts replicate traditional circus fare, like the performing elephant and an ethereal ring of horses that gallops around the big top. Other acts are more fantastical; circus-goers of the past, for instance, would not have been treated to the sight of a huge goldfish hovering in the middle of the ring.
With continued use of such innovative technical wizardry, or the extraordinary physical feats of Cirque du Soleil, circuses could still have a place in the entertainment industry. But for sure the heartbreaking use of magnificent wild animals for audience pleasure is thankfully coming to an end.