History of Elephant use in Circuses

September 5, 2016


Written in January 2016


I have researched information collated from internet sources to provide you with a brief history of elephant use in circuses; with this information we can gain a further insight into how times are changing and what we can expect to change in the future. 


The circus was born…..

It was an English man, Philip Astley (1742-1814) who created the modern circus, which really took of 246 years ago. Astley hired jugglers, acrobats and rope-dancers to perform alongside horse displays to give the audience an entertaining show. 

By the late 1700’s there was circuses arising in England, France, Canada and America, but it wasn’t until 1825 that circuses became ‘moving theatres’ and the wooden building was replaced by the canvas tent we see today. 

This was around the same time Hachaleigh Bailey (1775-1845), a cattle farmer from New York purchased a young African elephant which he successfully paraded around the U.S.A. Bailey soon added other exotic species to his act and this became the first travelling menagerie. 


Animal use in circuses.....

The use of animals in circuses revamped the circus image and became a major hit with the public; everyone wanted to see these exotic animals. More rings were added and acts became bigger and more flamboyant.

This success led other American cattle farmers to set up their own travelling menageries. 

The American circuses were predominately animal based shows run by business men, compared to Europe’s circuses of family performers. 

Circus companies travelled far and wide and the circus soon became an international money making phenomenon. 

The use of animals in Europe’s circuses began after Americans, Barnum and Bailey toured with their “Greatest Show on Earth” throughout Europe in the early 1900’s.


The creation of one of America’s most famous elephant circus company’s - Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey…..

Barnnum and Bailey circuses began when Phineas Taylor Barnum and James Anthony Bailey (adopted great nephew of Hachaleigh Bailey) became partners in 1881. Their circus featured ‘Jumbo’ who they bought from London Zoo for $10,000 in 1882; he was advertised as the world’s largest elephant. Jumbo made Barnum and Bailey hugely successful but this was at his own expense; Jumbo was captured from the wilds of Africa as a baby before being transported to London Zoo. 

On Jumbo’s journey to join Barnum and Bailey in America it is reported that Jumbo “liked” to be fed Scotch Whiskey. Jumbo’s life with Barnum and Bailey was short lived; he collided with a train in 1885, and some report that the train crash was staged! 

When Barnum died, Bailey continued as head man. Barnum and Baileys main competition was The Ringling Brothers, made up of 5 brothers. In 1907 the Ringling Bros. bought Barnum & bailey out following Baileys death and in 1919 combined shows to create today’s famous circus company Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.


Fighting for animal rights…..

The 1950’s/60’s has been described as the “heyday of the British Circuses” with several big named circuses parading their menagerie’s around the UK. Some famous UK circuses included Chipperfields, Robert Bros and the Black Pool Tower Circus; these menageries housed elephants, lions, tigers, polar bears, chimpanzees and more.  

In 1957 a retired school teacher, Irene Heaton took a stand and spoke out against cruelty to captive animals and set up The Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS). 

Since then, CAPS have protested, worked to change laws, undertook undercover investigations to expose the truth and raised awareness in changing people’s views on the welfare of captive animals. 

In the late 1980’s CAPS helped finance the UK’s first animal free circus.  

CAPS have been successful in stopping the use of wild animals at Black Pool and have encouraged many local authorities to stop animal circuses performing on their land; this is a great success from the work of CAPS. 



Main resources used…..






Please reload

Recent Posts

September 14, 2019

August 26, 2019

Please reload

Please reload

Search By Tags

Charity Registration No: 1167849

  • Instagram
  • Wix Facebook page

© 2014-2020 Thailand Elephants