Background: Husbandry of elephants in circuses


In many circuses, the husbandry conditions are intolerable, with the elephants having to spend unworthy lives as “arena clowns”, living most of the time in chains and in extremely confined conditions, particularly at night and during transport. Bad care, insufficient food, neglect and abuse are not uncommon in circuses. And even if the “Zirkusleitlinien” (guidelines on the keeping of animals in circuses in Germany) are complied with – something which in practice is not fully possible in any German circus – one fact cannot be hidden:

The natural needs of elephants cannot be met in circuses!

Documentation of Elephant husbandry at Circus Krone (in German)

Food intake:

It is not unusual for adequate elephant husbandry to fail because even the most basic needs such as those for food, care, etc., cannot be met. Furthermore, food intake, which constitutes an important aspect of the appropriate occupation of the animals, is not given sufficient consideration in circuses. Not only are the elephants sometimes given too little food with the composition of the rations often being inappropriate, they are also not given sufficient food to keep them preoccupied, i.e. branches.

Social behaviour:

 Circuses are not in a position to meet the social needs of elephants. This is particularly true of the following aspects which are practically non-existent in a circus: social groups in the form of family groups, breeding and raising of offspring. In the wild, it is the social hierarchies and the care for the offspring which form the basic elements of the elephants’ behaviour. In the circus, the giant animals are denied this fundamental behaviour. Elephants are the animals with the closest social ties we know of. And there can be no doubt, whatsoever, as to the fact that elephants can miss their fellow species.
Solitary housing of animals as highly social as elephants can be equated with cruelty to animals. Unfortunately, there are still a number of circuses where the elephants are kept solitarily. Circuses, however — even those where the circus guidelines are complied with – cannot provide the elephants with the appropriate social structures and, thus, the prerequisites for the social behaviour typical of their species. Since elephants do not propagate in circuses, no establishment of normal family relations is possible, even with group keeping. Taking into consideration the natural species-typical social behaviour, thus, in a circus no elephant husbandry in accordance with the animals’ natural behaviour is possible.

Need for movement and comfort behaviour:

Further points of criticism are badly ventilated or heated stable tents, unstructured or rarely used external paddocks and the fact that, in many cases, the animals are chained almost permanently. As a result of chaining, all circus elephants are hindered in their free movement and species-typical behaviour for 16 to 24 hours per day, adding up to almost 300 days per year. This can by no means be compensated for by the time spent in the paddock.
Thus, as far as the comfort behaviour and movement patterns typical of their species are concerned, no husbandry of the pachyderms in accordance with their natural behaviour is possible in travelling circuses, since minute paddocks with electric fencing and “laundry lines” do not permit any serious elephant husbandry.
The frequent transportation and the resulting travel stress are further factors speaking against elephant husbandry in circuses.


Compared with their free-range behaviour, the “behaviour-compatible occupation by means of training and performance”, stipulated in the “Zirkusleitlinien” as a compensation for the lack of self-initiated occupation and movement, has to be regarded as non-appropriate for the natural behaviour of the animals. Instead, degenerative diseases, causing many circus elephants considerable permanent pain and suffering, can clearly be ascribed to the training in the circus (head stand, standing on the front legs, standing on the hind legs, etc.).

Consequently, in travelling circuses, no behaviour-compatible occupation of elephants can be ensured either by means of training/performance or outside the time spent in the arena.

The consequences: almost all elephants kept in circuses suffer from severe physical and mental problems which are often obvious even to non-experts.
It seems that it is particularly the African elephants who find it hard to cope with the husbandry conditions in circuses. Furthermore, often the life expectancy of African elephants kept in circuses is shorter than that of their counterparts in the wild. Frequently they suffer from growth disturbances and deformed hind legs. In many circuses keeping both elephant species, in most cases the Asian elephants are clearly larger, something which is in contradiction to biology and confirmed scientific findings of free-range research. Potential causes include premature weaning, unsuitable food, too little sunlight (especially during the winter months), a lack of movement and inappropriate movements (training). What is also striking is the formation of “barky” patches, i.e. horny skin due to a lack of opportunities for chafing and bathing.

Furthermore, both species almost always suffer from severe behavioural problems such as the so-called “weaving”, characterized by the elephants stereotypically swinging their heads back and forth. This repetitive behaviour not aiming at anything nor serving any function is often the result of stressful situations, including boredom. The “weaving” of elephants, however, differs from animal to animal and does not allow a statement to be made regarding the quality of the husbandry conditions. Still, what can be said for sure is that elephants in the wild never “weave”.

Safety aspect:

In a circus no elephant husbandry in accordance with safety aspects is possible. The pachyderms’ performances in the arena alone require a husbandry system based on dominance exerted by humans. This means a need for life-long dominance over the elephants by the circus trainers. There are, however, numerous examples of the fact that such permanent dominance is impossible. Regularly, humans are harmed or killed by elephants kept in circuses. Since 1980, there is evidence of at least 52 people killed and some 145 people injured (partly severely) by elephants in circuses (Europe/North America). This permanent danger for the people involved cannot be prevented as long as the giant animals are kept in circuses. This incalculable and even less controllable problem of accidents cannot be tolerated. It is not rare for such accidents to result in the elephants being killed.

Effects on the audience:

Circus elephants are almost exclusively animals caught in the wild and not born in the circus or in a zoo. This means that circuses do not contribute to the conservation of the species but just “consume” elephants.
In terms of didactics, the commercial presentation of the wild animal that is the elephant is in contradiction to all modern reasons in favour of the keeping by humans of endangered species of wild animals. It is the opinion of Elefanten-Schutz Europa e.V. that this has neither anything to do with education in favour of nature and the environment nor that it raises awareness for environmental problems; thus, it cannot be called “pedagogically valuable”.

In summary, taking into consideration their free-range behaviour, both elephant species cannot be classified as species suitable for being kept and trained in the circus.

Our Documentation 2000 - "Elephants in the circus, lives in chains" (in German) reveals the deficits of elephant husbandry in circuses. The incontrovertible arguments contained in this documentation are meant to help ending the commercial abuse of elephants in circuses as soon as possible.

Legal bases regarding elephants kept in circuses in Germany

1. Legal bases:
As a rule, any husbandry of wild animals such as elephants, rhinoceroses, etc. (zoo, circus, private) has to follow the minimum provisions stipulated in the 1996 “Säugetiergutachten” (expert opinion on mammals, article in German).

  • The main provision regarding elephants: a minimum area of 500 m2

2. In circuses, shortfalls are allowed
Deviations will be approved in circuses since (as a result of the circus lobby’s influence) the work in the arena is regarded as daily behaviour-appropriate occupation. The fact that no behaviour-appropriate elephant care is possible in travelling circuses, can be clearly demonstrated by the above facts. Nevertheless, the law says: if the elephant is “occupied” daily by training and performance, the area the elephant is kept on may even be smaller than the one stipulated in the “Säugetiergutachten”. The corresponding regulations are contained in the so-called “Zirkusleitlinien” of 2000:

  • provisions of the “Zirkusleitlinien” regarding the keeping of elephants:
    - floor space (chaining): 10 m2 per animal, no inside enclosure specified
    - required space of outside paddock (1 to 3 animals): 250 m2¸ plus 20 m2 per further animal

If no daily rehearsals and work in the arena take place (at least 1 hour per day), the elephant is not receiving daily „behaviour-appropriate occupation“, and has to be kept in accordance with the expert opinion on mammals.

3. Regulations for individual circuses
The exact conditions for the keeping in the respective enterprise (stock of animals/individuals, possibly any prescribed enrichment, duration spent in the open air, etc.) are specified by the so-called “§11-Genehmigung” (approval in accordance with §11 of the Protection of Animals Act). The issuing authority (in most cases at the head quarter) may issue stricter or less strict provisions than those given in the guidelines. Since knowledge regarding the husbandry of exotic animals is rare, so are the provisions issued. The approval may be definite or indefinite. There is hardly any legal possibility to revoke it.

Official controls
The husbandry conditions are checked at each location of guest performance by the regional veterinary office. Official veterinarians, however, very rarely have sufficient knowledge regarding exotic animals or even specialize in zoo and wild animals.
During the very short controls it is often not possible for the veterinarians to grasp the deficits. Often there is insufficient time for thorough inspections. Since the guidelines are mere recommendations and not of a legally binding character, however, in most cases even deficits revealed by Elefanten-Schutz Europa remain unobjected.
Here you can read more about the case of “Mausi”, a female African circus elephant who died at a German circus, aged 31 (in English)