Jay Pratte, an animal trainer with 25 years of experience, recently observed two performances of the Ringling Bros. circus in Lincoln, Nebraska. He has seen acts that are nightmares for the Tigers. While Ringling Bros. touts its training methods as humane and animal-friendly, Pratte said, they were anything but. “The big cats … are managed through fear, coercion, and punishment,” he explained.
“I observed at Ringling Bros. to coerce the cats to respond in a desired manner is to yell at them, bang on the cages, and use long goads, prods, or whips to force them to move in a specific direction or to back off when approaching another animal or human too closely,” Pratte said. “These prods are ubiquitous. They are in the trainer’s’ hands, the assistants carry them, and they are left strategically near the cats to remain readily available.”
They sat Pratte’s claims are hardly surprising. While Ringling Bros. has long claimed its elephant training methods are reward-based even stating at its last elephant performance before retiring the animals that “We have the healthiest, happiest and most physically fit herd in the world”. Well photos released of the circus’s former training grounds show that calves were nearly tortured into performing and many times no healthy!
Sadly they were from their mothers just hours after birth, the baby elephants were tied up with ropes and physically put into the unnatural positions that the trainers wanted. The photos echo the brutal “training crush” elephants in Asia are subjected to to make them handleable, better to work with/trainable, which of course crushes the animal’s spirit.
“The cats’ postures while in the ring with the trainer(s) are indicative of a fear of consequences if they do not perform as coerced,” Pratte said. “The hunched shoulders, ears-back position is anticipatory of conflict or tension. Subtle changes then indicate fear or potential aggression, but this body language was consistent throughout both shows, indicating stress, fear, and psychological duress.”
“When the goads or whips are raised, the cats flinch and shy back every time,” he added. “When animals move forward as if to strike or react, they are yelled at and either quickly struck or startled back with whip cracks in the air or on the ground nearby.”
Pratte states the vigorous training only makes them more dangerous and there is no trust between trainer and the animal. Sadly one of the trainer showed him several scars, Pratte said, and told him that “We get a lot of bites and scratches.”
“Ironically, during announcements before the circus shows, the Ringling MC announces that animals are all trained using ‘reward and repetition,'” Pratte said. “I observed only two or three separate instances of a food reward being offered to one of the tigers. The cats know only fear, dominance, and punishment.”
When the animals weren’t being frightened into performing, Pratte said, their lives weren’t much better. They spend much of their time on the road, packed into crates or train cars several years ago, a young lion died after being left in a Ringling train car in sweltering heat with no water.
When they’re not traveling, their living areas are not adequate and conducive for animal safety. Pratte said. In the wild, tigers would be living in lush habitats surrounded by trees and water sources. When Pratte visited, the tigers were penned up in a parking lot in tiny fenced cages. The day was hot, but there was no shade for much of the morning. They had no pools to swim in, despite being naturally aquatic. Their pens were cold and bare, with no toys or enrichment aside from “a couple of small logs.”
Pratte asked two trainers about the lack of enrichment for the animals, he said, they told him they didn’t have time to set up proper or safe enclosures for the cats since they weren’t going to be in the city long enough,although it can be up to a month. “This is a period of five to six days with no enriching stimuli,” Pratte said. “[And] it is reasonable to suspect that the animals are not provided enrichment during transport.”
The tigers are often solitary animals, they were often kept with at least two other companions in small pens. “They were unable to avoid one another when space or social conflicts occurred,” Pratte said. “The inability to remove oneself from a conflict and display and cause the intruder to leave will result in significant increases in stress, potential injury, and long-term psychological issues. In the hour preceding each show, I witnessed multiple altercations between cats.”
Many of the cats also had injuries from fighting which only got worse putting them in such close quarters. During the three fights Pratte viewed one cat get cut, and the others received puncture wounds and lost tufts of hair. “There are also small scars covering the bodies of several cats,” he said. “Many are healed, and some had formed scabs. These are likely from improperly housing these cats in groups.”
Many of the cats are overweight, Pratte said. This puts them at risk for organ failure, arthritis, respiratory issues and heart disease of which Pratte saw clear signs.
“I observed several cats limping, walking gingerly and carefully to avoid painful jolts, and struggling actually to stand up or to perform cued behaviors during a show,” he said. “The heavier cats were panting constantly throughout the day and clearly enduring increased physical distress.”
The cats had to lay on the concrete floors and their weigh made this even more dangerous.
“A few of them had hygromas [a fluid-filled inflammation that develops at pressure points] at their joints, some of which were severe,” Pratte said. “These are caused by repeated trauma from lying on hard surfaces.”
Many of them also had cracked paws, as a result of living on hard floors, particularly when they are hosed down and remain wet for a long time. “These cracks will also dry out and are extremely painful to the animals when they move—and even when they’re at rest,” Pratte said. “Severe cracks can also become infected, causing further skin and tissue damage.”
“Biting flies and mosquitoes were visible throughout the day, and at no time did I observe any type of preventive treatment administered to the animals, nor was any environmental prevention visible,” he added. Unsurprisingly, the poor living conditions and harsh training had an effect on the mental well-being of the animals, Pratte said. Some of the cats were witnessed expressing stereotypic behaviors mindless, repetitive tics that animals develop as a means of coping with the stress of captivity.
Pratte witnessed two cats pacing back and forth in their cages, a common symptom of captive stress and psychological issues. “From years of experience, I can identify when a cat has ‘blanked out’ and is engaging in stereotypic behaviors to shut out the world,” he said. “Over time, these actions become habitual and increase the animal’s stress levels and accompanying physical problems.”
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