Chapter 5

Do animals in circuses and zoos feel pleasure?

To date there has been some discussion concerning the measurement of distress in animals in different types of husbandry, but little or no concern with possible behavioural measures of pleasure. That mammals at least feel something like pleasure or joy cannot be denied by any person who is prepared to admit that animals feel pain [23; 25]. The commonest example is of course the domestic dog which shows its pleasure at a mistresss arrival or the possibility of a walk, often in no uncertain terms; the dog leaps about, wags its tail, sometimes barks, may rush backwards and forwards to the mistress, and may pant.

Whether or not the circus and zoo animals are feeling something like pleasure or joy at any time during their life that we observed, is crucial to reaching a decision concerning the ethical acceptability of zoos and circuses.

One question which is constantly asked is whether or not the animals like to perform in front of audiences. Do they derive pleasure or joy from this, in the same way as an actor might, although it might also be somewhat nerve wracking; or alternatively, do they show dislike of going into the ring and performing. How is this to be assessed in the different species?

One way of identifying pleasure on behalf of the animal is by the performance of behaviour which can, as a general rule, be associated with excitement [83; 88]. This is defined as: an increase in activity and often the speed of moving around, and the performance of more activities more often. In our dog example, he leaps around, rushes backwards and forwards, tail wags, may bark, or bite playfully at objects, pick up and carry objects around, show a higher postural tonus (head and tail up) and so on. Most of the other canids show similar behaviour although the threshold at which they respond may be different.

Hoofed mammals tend to do similar types of things. They will move around more and often faster, sometimes leaping around. They will sometimes shake their heads or toss them. Their postural tonus may go up and they may snort, blow or vocalise. Llamas and the other smaller members of the camel family will tend to gallop around, then stop and stare around with a high postural tonus, leap and cavort. The problem is that, like other behaviour, if situations conducive to excitement continue too long, or are too severe, then the animal may become distressed rather than apparently feel pleasure. For example, what might start off as a run with a high postural tonus, snorting and staring, as a result of one animal perceiving a strange object, may turn into flight - accompanied by behavioural signs of fear: sweating, shivering etc. The other problem which at present we have no answer to is that even though the animal may not be showing any behavioural signs of either distress or pleasure, there is no guarantee that it is not feeling them.


Fig. 45. Tigers social play in an exercise area.

Fig. 46. Loose young elephants playing with their handler.


Social or object play may also be used as an indicator of good health and pleasure. Other self-caring activities, such as self-grooming, stretching, care about lying places, nest building and breeding at appropriate times, while not necessarily indicating joy and pleasure are often used by farmers, zoo-keepers and other animal managers as indices of good health [84].

The list below shows the behaviours of the different species we are concerned with primarily, which might be identified with pleasure or joy. We have no physiological measure of this any more than we do for distress. However we do have commonsense evidence... the evidence of our own eyes and ears as human beings [see e.g. 14; 20; 84 for discussion of commonsense evidence].

Relaxed animals, if not positively exhibiting pleasure, may be exhibiting lack of distress and fear. So animals that are relaxed in their home areas, or in company with human beings and in training sessions might be described as not distressed. This is particularly obvious in circuses where animals in all conditions, if they are under the jurisdiction of a good animal trainer, will be relaxed. It is often stated that a good horseman is one who has relaxed horses. It is possible therefore, using such criteria, to assess the attitude of the animals, and the humans to the animals by walking into any stable or farmyard. It is equally easy to see the opposite: fearful behaviour from both human stockperson and animal (lack of pleasure, and possible distress) when humans approach the animals in some circuses, zoos, stables, kennels and farms, particularly those who have policies of zero or minimal handling.



elephants large cats camelids equids bears
blow elevated paces climb
bang trunk chase leap/chase
cough mutual groom
rumble purr groan/grunt nicker grunt
ear flap leap about
rush about
touch other
squeal play bite
trumpet smell/lick other
roll about
= occurs in each species



The frequency of performance of behaviour possibly related to "pleasure" in the circuses
African elephants
Indian elephants

1. Number of times/ animal hour (pleasure, affiliative and play.)
2. Minutes/animal hour (touch and human contact.)


Evidence for pleasure in the living quarters

Any quantitative evidence for pleasure that we recorded in the one-hour recording periods is given in Figure 47. This quantitative behaviour only relates to the animals in their living quarters; any observational evidence for pleasure exhibited in the animals during training or handling is discussed in Chapter 6.

How pleasure was assessed quantitatively is outlined for each species. It is stressed that this is a first effort at doing this, and it requires much more detailed knowledge on the quantitative differences between species - the species telos or differences - than we at present have.

Other indices of possible pleasure may be the amount of affiliation that is shown between individuals (Figure 47 column 3), how much time they spent touching each other (column 6). There will be species differences in this - some species are more social and contact loving than others. Nevertheless, affiliative behaviour will give some pleasure, whatever its immediate cause.

Finally, the amount of voluntary contact between animal and human must give some indication of pleasure in each others company. The humans would not spend time with the animals and the animals would make no voluntary contact with the humans if the experience was not pleasurable for both. Measuring how often and how much time animals choose to be with humans when allowed a choice may prove to be very important in our further understanding and development of inter-species communication.

The elephants

Pleasure in elephants was summated from: blowing, bang trunk, cough, play, reach to human, rumbling, squeaking, trumpeting. We recognise that these behaviours are also used at other times and are not necessarily only indicative of pleasure; however, this is a first attempt.

Moss [27] says of greeting in African elephants that it is to her demonstrative of pleasure and involves these activities. I agree with this assessment from our own observations. However, this greeting in circus Indian and African elephants is often directed to the human handler/companion.

Figure 47 gives the summation of the amount of these behaviours exhibited by the elephants. Zoos have a particularly high score because the zoo elephants were more vocal (more blowing, squeaking and rumbling). Whether this was because they were somewhat frustrated because they were constantly trying to greet people, or this was pleasure remains obscure. Even when the elephants were shackled, they showed some behaviour which might be associated with pleasure, in particular their vocalisations, and touching each other with the trunk which occurred relatively often. It may be that touching one another frequently with the trunk is indicative of insecurity. Some of the elephants showed evidence of excitement and pleasure when greeting their trainer: trumpeting and ear flapping. Once released from the shackles, they approached the trainer and stood very near him, often feeling him with their trunks. They also vocalised and ear flapped on anticipating feed or water. They manipulated any objects within their reach with their trunks, including throwing the hay around and over their heads, manipulating bolts and shackles, or hitting the side of the tent with the trunk. These behaviours are not exclusive indicators of pleasure, but it may be involved.

Touching each other was very common (21 min/hr) for the young African elephants. Unfortunately, we do not have any figures from the wild to compare with. It may be that this might also indicate insecurity in these young animals isolated from older animals. They also had less contact with people. However these differences were not significant.

The large cats

The cats were mostly in social groups (some of them mixed species) for at least part of the day. They had plenty of opportunity for social interaction and play. The amount of playing in the big cats is shown in Figure 47. This involved normal cat- like play, stalking, lying watching, pouncing, wrestling, leaping, chasing and nose- to-nose touching and greeting. Mutual licking was also fairly frequent.

Rubbing themselves on each other and on the bars and purring were other activities probably denoting pleasure.

Lions and, to a lesser extent, the tigers are social cats [71; 72]. Leopards, by contrast, tend to be less social, and in this respect are more like the domestic cat [85]. There is little detailed published information concerning their behaviour.

There is more evidence for pleasure in the exercise yards and zoos (Figure 37) although these figures are only significant for the lions.

The bears

The bears in their home cages were very active and also showed much evidence of affiliation, human contact and pleasure as scored by playing, wrestling, play biting and climbing (Figure 47). We have no information about wild bears with which to compare these figures.

Horses, zebras, mules and donkeys

Indices of possible pleasure in horses, ponies and zebras were: moving around rapidly, a high postural tonus, leaping, rearing and bucking around, chasing, galloping as a group and social playing. Nose-to-nose touching in greeting may also be used as indicative of possible pleasure.

The equids in the tents often had little chance to move rapidly or have free social interactions since they were either in individual looseboxes or tied in stalls. Some ponies were loose in the general circus area and would dart about between the tents (Figure 15). Others were from time to time tethered out of the tents.

Social interaction was significantly more frequent in the confined horses (see Figure 44) than in pastured horses. They also have the highest score for human contact. This may indicate a form of insecurity or compensation for the restriction of other behaviours.

Most of the equids would nicker and neigh at the approach of their handlers and or the food or hay, indicating greeting and anticipated pleasure. This might, in part, be because of their confined conditions.

The camelids

The large camels were relatively lethargic and showed no particular evidence of pleasure by leaping around. They were without exception easy to handle and non- aggressive, and appeared to show some pleasure at the presence of their handlers and food. They did, however, engage in much play-biting which accounts for the high score of pleasure (Figure 47).

The llamas, alpacas and guanacos appeared to be more reactive and were often kept loose in yards where they were able to interact and have some social play. They also could move around relatively freely. However, they show very low levels of pleasure on these scores.

Other hoofed stock

The other hoofed stock were mostly tied and tended not to be particularly reactive. They showed evidence of anticipation of pleasurable experiences in terms of looking for and calling for food around food time and greeting known human handlers. They showed no evidence on the whole of displeasure in being handled and led around.


The domestic dogs, as usual, showed much pleasure when their handler (or practically any other person) was paying them attention. Some of the dogs were in pens and could be visited by the public but most of them were shut away in the wagons and were not studied in depth.

Wolves, hyenas etc. were in groups (if there were more than one) in beast wagons, and certainly reacted strongly to food and its anticipation. They were not studied in detail.


One of the main criticisms of circuses is that the animals may well dislike or even detest having to perform in front of audiences of human beings twice a day. The performances were studied, therefore, with this in mind and we walked round behind the scenes and assessed the behaviour of the animals before, during and after the performances.

One of the first criteria to consider is the behaviour in anticipation of the performance. The lights go on and the music starts, the people can usually be heard coming into the tent, and there can be little doubt that a performance is approaching This appeared to make little difference to most of the animals. Even when they were being prepared by having their harnesses fitted (if any), or extra grooming and handling which was normal before a performance for most of the animals, they remained generally calm. We saw no reluctance to enter the ring, through the flapping tent sides, often in high winds, and usually past the very loud band in any but the least experienced animals.

Some of the big cats, particularly the younger ones, were not keen on leaping out of the cage and down the tunnel to the ring. Some of the larger cats also wanted to leave the ring at the end of the performance. However, during the performances, most of the cats performed apparently with willingness although not always with great enthusiasm.

Animals that persistently show a dislike of entering the ring and do not act up to the audiences applause, or cannot get used to the noise, lights and so on, are culled. This is expensive, so as a result the trainer will often put some thought into why an individual is reluctant to go into the ring or do certain things in the ring. The act will often be changed to accommodate the individuals skills and likes.

There were only three performing bears seen in British circuses when we were visiting them. They showed no evidence or reluctance to go to the ring or to perform. Since bears have relatively inexpressive faces and bodies, it is more difficult to understand their emotional state.

Reaction to audiences

Many of the more experienced performing animals appeared to react positively to large and enthusiastic audiences. The act would be performed with more energy and the animals appeared to be reacting to the audiences emotional responses to the various acts. By contrast, small audiences or unenthusiastic audiences tended to discourage the human and animal performers from making their best efforts or bothering very much at all. Whether this effect on the animals was a response directly to the audience, or to the motivation of their presenter we dont know.

Some animals had learnt that there was much audience response from doing the wrong thing, provided the audience knew it was wrong, such as the llama rolling around or jumping out of the ring, the bucking donkey bucking off its rider, or the dog knocking over its clown master. These animals apparently found the audience response reinforcing and developed the acts themselves up to a point.

However, where the audience did not really know what was meant to happen (and made no response when an act went wrong) - such as a messy presentation of a liberty horse act (which when the horses do not keep properly to place can look chaotic) - or there was no audience response: nothing changed. Horses (as most animals) respond very well to praise and similarly to disapproval. It would be interesting to see how they would have responded if the audience had shown some disapproval when things went wrong!


This has already been discussed (see Chapter 2). There was no particular evidence of pleasure but none of distress or displeasure either in loading, travelling or unloading.

Winter quarters

There was evidence of distress in the behaviour of animals at winter quarters, and some of pleasure too, but the winter quarters have many of the disadvantages of restricted and monotonous environments which the zoos have to confront all the time for their animals. There is much that could be done to make these environments more acceptable to the animals and consequently for them to show more pleasure and less distress.


There are inevitably threshold differences, and differences in how pleasure may be displayed in the different species. The inter-species comparisons are therefore meaningless at this stage. It is interesting to see that these animals do show some possible evidence of pleasure in circuses, and this does not appear to always be less than in other types of husbandry.

This is a tentative effort at trying to assess pleasure quantitatively in the different species in their living quarters and inevitably it has many snags. However, it may prove a fruitful area for research to help assess the relative acceptability of different environments to different animals, and therefore their happiness.

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