Food and clothing are perhaps the most obvious ways we exploit animals, but they are certainly not the only instances. Vegans oppose not only eating animals or wearing their skin, but also any exploitation of animals for human gain, including occasions where we use animals as entertainment. 

Perhaps the most widely known and generally opposed animal entertainment industry is circuses. Animals used in circuses range from common birds, bears, foxes and snakes, to more exotic animals like lions, tigers and elephants. Most of these are sourced from private breeders, though some are purchased from zoos as ‘surplus animals.’ During performances, animals are often required to perform dangerous stunts, such as elephants balancing on balls, tigers jumping through fire, bears riding bicycles and large cats ridden by handlers. These unnatural behaviours require intensive training, often involving the use of cruel practices such as whipping, hooks, electrocution and food deprivation.

Even when not performing, studies demonstrate that circus life causes significant harm to animals. The head researcher of one study noted:

“It’s no one single factor, whether it’s lack of space and exercise, or lack of social contact, all factors combined show it’s a poor quality of life compared with the wild.”

This study suggested that on average, animals spend 1-9% of their time training, and the rest of the time they are confined to cages, wagons or small enclosures. Many circus animals display repetitive stress behaviours due to confinement and boredom. 

Several undercover investigations have revealed that abuse is widespread among handlers. For instance, one Asian elephant was filmed being struck with a metal pitchfork and kicked in the face, while held down by heavy metal chains. Animals who are too old or disobedient to be useful to circuses are sometimes properly retired, but, they are often sold to zoos, roadside attractions, game farms, research laboratories or private buyers. Many meet uncertain fates, disappearing from records and public consciousness completely.

While the public is turning away from events like circuses, there are other industries in which a great deal more work must be done, one of these being in aquariums and marine parks, with larger organisations like SeaWorld still attracting over 22,000 visitors per year. Marine parks remain the most divisive of the aquatic industries, and with documentaries like “Blackfish” (2013) the public is becoming increasingly aware of the poor treatment, diet, enclosures and the stress endured by large marine animals, especially orcas. Boredom and depression are often the result of the tiny, artificial enclosures, with many dolphins and whales exhibiting repetitive stress behaviours such as swaying, chewing walls, pacing and head bobbing.

These behaviours clearly demonstrate that animals are not happy in marine parks; and poor life expectancy reveals that even their physical needs are not adequately met in captivity. John Hargrove, formerly the most senior trainer at SeaWorld, said: 

“I saw the psychological and physical trauma that results from captivity. A massive corporate entity is exploiting the hell out of the whales and the trainers.”

Even when marine animals are not performing tricks for the public, as is usually the case in public aquariums, the situation for animals is far from ideal. Due to the lack of success of aquarium breeding programs and the poor life expectancy of captive species, many aquariums rely on wild caught animals. Many popular species, such as the royal or regal blue tang, have been over-collected and are endangered in the wild. Some fish in the wild would range hundreds of miles and aquariums, regardless of how large they are, are ill-equipped to provide appropriate environments for captive fish who require so much space and stimulation. Though there is a serious lack of research in this area, it is hard to imagine that fish remain content and stimulated in confined, artificial environments, exposed to electric lights and the noise of an almost constant stream of visitors.

Similar to aquariums, zoos have also spent the past few decades trying to distance themselves from the animal entertainment image of the past, and rebrand as conservation and education organisations. While conditions for animals have certainly improved, zoos are unable to provide anything resembling an animal’s natural environment. While many zoos contribute towards conservation efforts with their captive breeding programs, the issue is that these programs usually only conserve species for display in zoos, since most animals will never be reintroduced to the wild. Studies have also challenged the efficacy of captive breeding programs, concluding that unless animals are protected in the wild, captive breeding will not make enough of a difference.

While zoos are keen to tout their conservation credentials, critics point out that relatively little of their efforts go towards that aim. David Hancocks, a former zoo director with 30 years of experience, estimates that less than 3% of the budgets of the 212 accredited zoos of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association go towards conservation efforts. Similarly, Benjamin Beck, former associate of biological programmes at the National Zoo in Washington D.C, found that in the last century, only 16 out of 145 reintroduction programmes eve restore any animal populations to the wild.

At their hearts, most zoos remain animal entertainment industries. While they claim to educate the public on animal behaviour, captive animals demonstrate such vastly different behaviours than their wild counterparts that this seems ultimately fruitless. Like large marine animals in aquariums, many zoo animals exhibit repetitive stress behaviours and depression. This being the case, what can we possibly learn about wild animals by observing the behaviour of their unhappy, stressed and atypically behaved captive counterparts?

Animal entertainment industries capitalise on our deepest need to feel connected to animals and nature, but this comes at a great cost to the animals. To view an animal in a zoo is to look at them on your terms entirely, in an artificial environment that will never adequately imitate their homes. They are trapped, helpless and unable to escape our glare. Authentic experiences come from animals who interact with us because they want to, because they have chosen to appear before us, not because we have paid for it. These animals do not exist for our consumption, they are not commodities or amusements. We do not have the right to place these animals in cages for our benefit.

“My doctrine is this: That if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and we do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.”

Anna Sewell