By Dr. Bruno Lassalle, veterinarian, former manager of the Vincennes Zoo
Possession of an animal, either a wild or a domestic species, necessarily comes with constraints on natural behavior. These constraints may generate observable suffering. Many dogs are subjected to severe constraints that modify their natural behavior without visible pain. House cats often exhibit uneasiness; however, most of them manage to keep some sanity. On the other hand livestock is great victim; particularly animals from industrial farming lack the means to express normal behavior.
Article L214-1 (of the rural and sea fishing Code): since all animals are sentient beings, they shall be kept by their owners in conditions in keeping with the biological requirements of their species.
Living conditions imposed upon animals in circuses, especially non-domestic one, are completely altered compared with those to which their species has adapted. The first immediate observation concerns social aspects. Social animals like elephants and most of the herbivores are tied down to a solitary life whereas solitary animals like tigers are compelled to live together in permanent groups.
Moreover circuses do not provide captive animals with environmental enrichment that would allow them to express their natural behaviors. This sensory deprivation results in behavior disorders; the most obvious are stereotypies, i.e. incongruent and repetitive behavioral sequences without any stop sign.
Tigers indefinitely pacing around their cage and putting their paws always in the same place, elephants swaying their head side to side, bears going round and round and nodding, monkeys rocking like autistic children, birds plucking their feathers ... all these signs, and many others, reveal behavior disorders equivalent to psychosis, in other words the loss of the ability to grasp reality.
It's no wonder psychically weakened animals start interact with their trainer as they cannot do so with their counterparts, whether they are social animals living alone or solitary ones that are kept in unnatural groups. This unhealthy relationship with a trainer who does not necessarily detect the animal's distress creates a balance that allows the animal to survive somehow. And to take away an animal from its trainer upsets the balance; that is the reason why trainer-animal relationship may be reminiscent of the famous Stockholm syndrome that describes the affection (the transference) hostages express towards their captors. Under no circumstances, this trainer-animal relationship can justify to call into question the purpose of banning animals from circuses, at least non-domestic species.
The same disorders can be seen in zoological gardens; it is quite a challenge to hold bears or elephants without stereotypies appearing. However, among their duties, zoos must allow animals to express their species-specific behaviors; and environmental enrichment has grown for the last decades. For now, extremely high risk of extinction facing some species whose biotopes have been destroyed or are about to be still justifies housing individuals that might be displayed to the public, like in zoos, to make up an essential financial support ...
The role of zoological gardens is to maintain genetic diversity and a range of behaviors in captive animals so that reintroduction of a species in its natural habitat remains possible. Circus animals do not support this goal: unknown genetic and health status and loss of natural behavior. These animals are now intruders everywhere, either in the wild or in zoos. They have become dangerous machines, instruments of dreadfully old-fashioned shows.