Performing Circus Animals


In the years between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the basic circus acts did not change much.  The core performances were still juggling, acrobatics, tightrope walking, clowns (jesters).  What changed was that the performances were no longer primarily held in fixed locations but rather were small groups roaming about in wagons and carts.  (Medieval Spell n.d.)

Menageries and the Medieval Circus

By the 1600s to their peak in the early 1900s menageries were the first form in which animals became a part of the circus.


“These menageries were a collection of separate wagons parked in a rectangular shape. The audience stood in the middle of the rectangle and the animal tamers would enter the wagons to perform tricks.” (V&A n.d.)









The English Circus 1768


Philip Astley

Around 1768 Philip Astley (a former cavalry Sergeant-Major part of Colonel Elliott’s 15th Light Dragons regiment) who was well known as being a very good horse-breaker and trainer opened a riding school in London England where he taught in the morning and performed “feats of horsemanship” in a 62 foot (18.9m) diameter ring in the afternoons. After a few years of testing and training he ended up with a ring that was 42 feet (12,8m) in diameter. 42 Feet thereafter became the established size of circus rings world wide. 42 Feet was the ideal sized ring for performance trick riding.  A horse galloping in a ring of this size created the right amount of centrifugal force needed by riders to stand up and balance on a galloping horses back.                       (Victoria & Albert Museum n.d., n.d.)



Philip Astleys Amphitheater 1808

After a couple of very successful seasons in London, Astley decided that he needed to extend the range of performance and so he added juggling, acrobatics, medieval style clowns and other popular circus acts to the riding displays. He also extended the show to Paris the Amphithéâtre Anglois, in 1782 . In that same year competitors started to emerge encouraged by Astley’s successes and soon the Circus was a common sight around Europe. It also spread to the new world, with entrepreneurs taking it to                                                                                                               New York and Canada. (Circopedia n.d)

The American Circus

In America circus performance developed a different and distinct style, quite different to the English and European circus.

America was a young developing nation that was still expanding and had a very small number of large enough cities that could sustain a long term resident circus. In order to adapt to the constant migration and scarcity of its audience, the American circus had to adapt in several ways. In 1825 Brown Joshuah became the first circus entrepreneur to replace the the then traditional wooden venue with a full canvas tent. By the 1830 some American Farmers had bought exotic animals such as elephants, lions, and other and travelled around the US exhibiting them. By 1835 a group of such farmers joined together to create the American Zoological Institute which was a trust that controlled thirteen menageries and three affiliated circuses, thus cornering the country’s traveling-circus and menagerie business. With that, the unique character of the American circus emerged: It was a traveling tent-show coupled with a menagerie and run by businessmen, a very different model from that of European circuses, which for the most part remained under the control of performing families. (Jando D. n.d.)


Ringling brothers over the top tiger Share Alike 4.0 International

As the number of animals and human spectacular performance grew the circus tents grew larger and larger until by 1872 the number of rings in the circus tent had grown from 1 to 2 to 3 and even 7 rings. These were huge spectacles. Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Brothers are two of Americas most famous circuses of the late 19th and 20th century.


Image.. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The end of performing Circus Animals 1980s

Both European and American circuses mostly stopped using performing animals after the 1970-80’s in response to animal rights activists protests and general public concern over the possibility of cruelty to animals during and after their training.


Tools of the Trade: Circuses PETA Poster. (People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals)

Popular concern has been widely voiced on the internet with typical comment along the lines of the following, which if true are shocking.

In the wild,elephants walk up to 30 miles each day, but in the circus, these intelligent, social animals are locked in leg shackles that only allow them to take a single step forward or backward. Ringling’s own documents reveal that on average, elephants are chained for 26 hours straight and are sometimes chained for as many as 100 hours straight. ( peta2 n.d.)


Newspaper article showing the auctioning of Myer’s Circus: Around 1887, steel engraving printed on newsprint


Destruction of the Noble Elephant: After 1826, hand-coloured print









Many Circus people on the other hand protested these claims and alleged care and great affection for their animals.( Australian Screen Organisation (ASO). National Film and Sound Archive 1993)

Whatever the whole story, the result was that many countries legislated Animal protection laws. Greece became one of the first nations in Europe to ban animal performances in 2012. In the 21C few if any circuses use animal acts.