Circus and its painful secrets

Amal Chatterjee
9 min readMay 22, 2018


Synopsis: Behind the glitter and glamor of circus, there lurks a dark shadow of cruelty to animals that are made to perform for us under duress so I would like to make people aware so that they learn to treat all animals kindly.

Source: Google photo

When we were children, we loved to go to circus that came to our town once in a blue moon so it was all the more exciting. We went to see the workers putting up huge tents with winches and pulleys on very long poles while the caged animals eagerly waited for their meals and the elephants chewed on sugarcane stalks placidly. The frenetic activities of preparation of the venue, the animals and the circus performers all were a part of the excitement that was to come soon so we waited for the circus to start.

On a given day we ran to get our tickets and to get our favorite seats near the arena with popcorn or peanuts in hand eagerly waiting for the show to start while the clowns did their funny jests to fill the time before the main event by slapping each other in exaggerated ways and farting or back flipping making us all laugh.

When the bright lights were turned on to focus on the trapeze artists who waiting high up to swing and catch each other flying fearlessly through the space were ready in their bright costumes, they took our breath away while they caught expertly their companion, usually very pretty girls by their arms and never missed because missing was not an option for anyone perched so high.

There was a safety net but they used it just to land on it and come down to take their bows from the wildly cheering audience. We marveled at the bright satin skimpy clothes the girls wore showing all their legs in tight-fitting costumes but their act was dangerous so they had to be dressed for it and look pretty at the same time.

You could see the tension in the eyes of the Master of the ceremony who watched very keenly the trapeze artists swinging so fearlessly and relief when they came down to take their bows. We did not know that behind the scene they had practiced very long and hard for their acts until they got it perfect.

The musicians ,the clowns and everybody stopped and looked up holding their breath to see the artists because we all knew how dangerous the performance was and slight mistakes could end up in tragedy but they performed flawlessly and smiled at the audience that clapped their hands furiously.

Then came the elephants that climbed on each other’s back or pushing giants balls and doing many tricks that thrilled us all but we patiently waited for the lions and tigers to appear because to see these wild animals doing various tricks was the highlight of the circus.

They first put up steel fence all around and made sure that the fence pieces tightly held together and only then the lions were released into the fenced arena with their trainer who wore clothes like a matador and always had a whip in his hand to guide the animals into doing what they were trained to do. They showed their teeth and growled making us all fearful but they obeyed the whip and did various tricks to delight the audience.

It was great to see the tigers jump through a fiery loop effortlessly while other tigers waited for their turn. We were relieved when they were finished and were guided into their cages and locked in because these were dangerous animals that did not belong in a circus or anywhere in cages except in the wilderness where they were truly free.

I could see in their wild eyes the fear of the whip and the resignation that they could never go back to the wilderness and be free again. You could see this in the eyes of all wild animals that were forced to perform every night for people who were free and never understood what it was like to live in a 6 foot by 6 foot cage where thee poor animals were kept for long periods of time.

I have seen the anger in their eyes when kids poked at them through their cage bars in the public park of El Obeid in Sudan and also saw the desperation and anguish they felt at being caged for all to see them and poke at them at will.

How would you feel if you are in their shoes being poked at and made fun of ? This is how the Romans treated their slaves and prisoners but we still do it and show cruelty to animals today.

So I wanted to write about the dark side of the circus where we only get to see how these animals perform and see all the glitter and the lights shining on the performers in a their tight satin and sequined dresses smiling and bowing to us.

The truth is that it is a very hard profession to be in a circus because it requires years of hard training, falling and getting hurt before they can master their tricks. The women must not gain weight so someone controls their food. The never-ending exercise and training, constantly on the move from one city to the next and living in cramped quarters cannot be fun for them because these poor artists never know what it is to have a decent home, a family and children.

Often children join the circus by running away from their abusive parents or siblings and they make the circus their home and become a member of the circus family. But behind all the glitter there is sadness and only a temporary feeling of elation when the audience applauds them.

I suspect that the animals are mistreated by the trainers until they submit and learn to perform certain tricks. The baby elephant called Appu was beaten into submission by his trainer so that he could learn to sit on a big ball during the Commonwealth games in India but such facts are carefully hidden from the public.

We have all seen videos of elephants breaking loose from their quarters in a circus and causing mayhem because they were so angry being mistreated. They have emotions just like us and show it when they are happy or sad. People underestimate their power when they are angry so panic when an elephant runs loose to cause harm to others.

In the wilderness you may see these animals placidly munching grass or resting but when they are captured and beaten to perform in circus, they become angry and try to escape if they can.

We all have the morbid fascination of seeing wild animals caged or made to perform for us so there are zoos all over the world where animals and birds are kept in strict confinement so that we can see them and the zoo keepers make money from the ticket sales. Often such animals fail to breed because they are sad and want to be free to roam in the wilderness but they die in their cages never to see the plains of Africa from where they were captured. We use these animals for our enjoyment but never feel anything for them except the morbid fascination so we go to the zoo or the circus.

A killer whale called Orca that was kept in huge tank in the Sea World in Florida became so angry and frustrated in its confinement that one day it dragged it’s trainer under water and held her until she died causing a great clamor for its release into the ocean where it belonged. I still do not know if the whale was finally released.

A Russian circus that came to the Philippines with a shipload of animals abandoned them when Russia fell apart due to political changes there making the circus owner bankrupt. For many days and weeks no one was in charge of these animals so they starved and some died in their cages. I do not know how many of them were finally rescued and what happened to them.

I heard also the tragic case of a circus that used to come to our town when its ship carrying all the animals floundered and the animals and people died so the company does not exist now.

Once we saw a circus in Port-au-Prince in Haiti that was a Mexican circus but very few people attended because of the high ticket price in a very poor country so the performers were dejected to see the empty seats. The owner tried to make money by sending photographers who took your photo without your consent and asked you to pay for it.

I know that many circus owners have become bankrupt because the times have changed and people are more aware and conscious of the hardship the animals and people in circus face so may be their days are numbered. I hope someday people will stop visiting zoos as well and will put pressure on them to release all the animals and birds to where they belong or into a sanctuary where they can be looked after by veterinarians and fed properly. Some rare animals can be saved from extinction this way.

When I see the dogs caged in small steel cages where they can’t even turn around, I get very upset at this cruelty some people show to animals. Poor dogs are kept in cages under the sun that makes them dehydrated and utterly miserable but no one cares. One elephant was kept in chains for over 50 years in India and was finally released under pressure from the animal activists. The poor animal shed tears of joy when finally released so we know that they too have feelings but we act cruelly towards them. This is our dark side and shameful side.

The monks keep tigers in Thailand so that the tourists can pet them and caress them in exchange for some money but now the truth has come out that these tigers are drugged with opium so they are always drowsy. It is a form of mistreatment so now people are asking the monks to release them into the forest where they belong. Stupid tourists can go somewhere else to spend their money on.

In America some people keep bull dogs in heavy chains to strengthen their necks so they can use these poor animals in dog fights that people bet on illegally. Now some animal lovers have come to the rescue of these animals and put them in shelters where they are treated better.

I feel sorry for the circus people because they do not live a normal life and do not know the joy of staying in one place, raising a family and perhaps get a job somewhere but the truth is that there is no market for their skills outside the circus. They do not make money if the circus does not make money so it is called a precarious living. Heavy drinking, drugs or substance abuse, domestic violence, abuse of their animals, poor living conditions and temporary nature of their existence all makes it an unappealing profession.

As a child I did not know all these things but sooner or later we all learn about the dark side and wonder if it is really worth it to go to circus or zoos where animals are kept and paraded for show so that the owners can make money.

We have to learn to be kind to animals and let them live where they are comfortable. A steel cage is the last thing they want to get into. If I manage to raise some awareness in my readers about the sorry conditions the animals are kept in and do something about it then I will feel that the purpose of my blog is fulfilled.

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