Polar bear on vintage circus poster – but performing bears are, sadly, not a thing of the past (Bear Conservation collection)

Bears are kept in travelling circuses in many parts of the world and black bears are one of the most common species used in circus acts.

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Circus animals are continually moved from place to place, being loaded into “beast-wagons” or chained within trucks.  Keeping wild animals in cramped conditions and subjecting them to repeated travel is known to cause high levels of stress resulting in abnormal behaviour.  In bears this includes pacing, biting cage bars and themselves, head rolling and body swaying.  There is also evidence of the widespread use of cruelty both in training and during performances.

Bears are free-roaming in the wild and usually, apart from mating and mothers with cubs, are solitary animals.  Enforced social interaction and close confinement both contribute to stress and abnormal behaviour.  Research indicates high levels of stress and probably fear amongst bears kept in circuses.  Symptoms include elevated blood pressure and heart rates and atypical body language (for example, cowering).

Whilst the popularity of circuses seems to be diminishing and public opposition to the use of animals in circuses is growing, the end of their use seems a long way off.  However, some countries have already banned the use of wild animals in circuses, for example Austria, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Singapore.  Moves are progressing in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the United States to implement bans.

Bans cannot come soon enough for bears.  Generally sanitation levels are poor, exercise largely non-existent, space highly limited, food inappropriate and general living and transportation conditions appalling.  Many animals are mutilated either in training or accidentally.  Rings through noses and mutilated or even removed paws are not uncommon.

Yakov’s Moscow Circus was publicising the inclusion of Siberian Dancing Bears in its United States show as recently as 2010.

Get involved

Shameful performing bear acts continue in the United States.  Read more and take action here.


Born Free


(Bear Conservation collection)

Page updated 24 September 2017