Science - September 2, 2009

Some circus animals display pathological behaviour

Circus elephants have a hard time. Lions and tigers are better off because they are more domesticated.

Circus elephants show sign of distress
The welfare of circus animals leaves a lot to be desired. Elephants are particularly badly off, whereas lions, tigers and horses are much less affected. These are the conclusions of researcher Hans Hopster of the Animal Science Group. Together with Machteld van Dierendonck, Heidi van den Brandt and Kees van Reenen, Hopster investigated animal welfare in travelling circuses. The research was commissioned by Ministry of Agriculture and Food (LNV), and the minister submitted the results to parliament in July.
 Hopster investigated six circuses and spent more than eleven hundred hours studying the animals' behaviour. He sees the research as an important first step towards establishing the facts as a basis for a good discussion. 'The elephants are really in a bad way', he says. He described their behaviour as pathological: for about eighty percent of the time they show stereotyped behaviour such as endless nodding of the head, waving of the trunk or shifting from foot to foot.  'This stereotyped behaviour occurs when animals are too restricted in their normal behaviour', explains Hopster. 'Elephants are intelligent animals that need a complex social and physical environment'.
 Surprisingly enough, the big cats were better off. 'Lions are sociable, lazy and less inclined to keep moving', explains Hopster. 'We see the same relaxed behaviour among circus lions'. Although tigers are solitary by nature and much more active, they also seemed to have adjusted pretty well to circus life. The cats only displayed stereotyped behaviour for about five to ten percent of the time. Hopster thinks this is due to the partial domestication of the big cats. 'Only wild animals that feel fairly OK in captivity can raise young successfully. Lions and tigers have been successfully breeding in circuses and zoos for a long time. 'This leads to a selection of animals that can cope with captivity. 'Wild' becomes a relative term.'