Circus Animals in Children’s Books

‘When children see animals in a circus, they learn that animals exist for our amusement. Quite apart from the cruelty involved in training and confining these animals, the whole idea that we should enjoy the humiliating spectacle of an elephant or lion made to perform circus tricks shows a lack of respect for the animals as individuals.’

– Peter Singer, AC Author
Philosopher and Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University

Wildsmith, Brian. The Circus. London, OUP, 1970.

The ‘magical’, dream-like quality of The Circus by Brian Wildsmith captures the essence of the appeal of performing animals. Children are lulled into The Circus with vivid colours and gentle brush strokes.

The Circus was published in 1970 but images like Wildsmith’s are still very popular.  Take a look at the following circus merchandise available at John Lewis:

Wildsmith complained that in the UK illustrators were thought inferior to painters, unlike in Japan where everything is art.  Whether art or ‘just’ illustration, these pictures send a message.

Here is a picture from Morris and Boris at the Circus by B. Wiseman published in 1988 by Harper Collins and unfortunately still in print.

The elephants are happy, the story is ‘funny’ but in reality, elephants are taught to perform by being beaten, bullied and psychologically tormented.

Young elephants are taken from their mothers for ‘training’ like this:

Ironically I first went online to find out more about how elephants are trained, but ON MY OWN LIBRARY SHELVES was this book:

The Magic Ring: A Year with the Big Apple Circus by Hana Machotka told me all I needed to know.

Dr Mel Richardson, a vet with over 40 years of experience with elephants says:

“The amount of suffering in order to entertain anyone’s 5 year old for 15 minutes is a crime.”

The Magic Ring has now been weeded from my collection. But I found others that also needed to be weeded:

Welcome to the Circus! by Denise M.Jordan
Published by Heinemann Library

Why are we subjecting our children to this cruelty?

The use of the bullhook physically harms elephants

The bullhook is traditionally used on sensitive areas of the body. For example, a bullhook may be used behind the ears where the skin is paper thin, around the eyes where the skin is also very thin, and on the feet, trunk and around the mouth which are highly enervated. These areas are all extremely sensitive to the touch.  (

Circus tigers are often beaten or starved if they disobey their trainers. Broken down and anticipating punishment, tigers perform a number of uncomfortable and unnatural tricks to avoid this. What may seem like a willing participant to the audience is in reality nothing more than a terrified animal that has been beaten into submission and forced to perform. (One Green Planet)

Training dogs to walk on two legs is a form of animal cruelty (AsiaOne).

Two more books in this Heinemann Read and Learn series also refer to animals performing in the circus.

At my school, at least two ‘at the circus shows‘ have been performed and both times teachers dressed children as animals and had them ‘performing’ with a ring master. It appears, like the illustrations in Wildsmith’s book and the John Lewis cushions that the circus is a magical place for children and animals.  This is not humane education.

So, I will keep looking for information books about the circus that DO NOT treat performing animals as fun entertainment.  If you know of any please comment below.

So, to fiction and regretfully circus animals still perform in children’s story books.

I bought three Fizzlebert Stump books for the library.  I think I fell for the title of the first: Fizzlebert Stump: The Boy who Ran Away from the Circus (and Joined the Library) and I am sure this was the hook for many librarians who have mistakenly bought this book – although the reviews are good they are very misleading.

Fizzlebert Stump Series by A.F. Harrold. Illustrated by Sarah Horne. Published by Bloomsbury.

A.F. Harrold is a performance poet by trade and I can imagine children hooting with laughter as he tells his stories. But, there is not much to laugh at in this series. In fact, it is very depressing. In 2020 the UK Governments will ban wild animals performing in UK circuses (a ban already in force in Scotland and Ireland) so WHY do we have a lion and a sea lion in these stories?  I can only answer that cheap laughs are obviously more of a priority that genuinely funny and intelligent writing for children.

In Fizzlebert Stump there is Charles the Lion who has false teeth (so it is perfectly OK for Fizz to do his act which is putting his head in the lion’s mouth).

Charles lives in a cage because it is a travelling circus (remember these acts are banned in Scotland and Ireland):

Charles, the travelling circus lion, in his cage.
Illustration by Sarah Horne

“Fish, the sea lion, wearing ‘a smart spangly waistcoat flolloping into the middle of the ring, lit up by spotlights and clearly confused the audience can’t help but laugh.” p.235

Illustration by Sarah Horne


Here are several excerpts from Fizzlebert Stump The Boy who Cried Fish:

Fizz’s act, with Charles the lion and Captain Fox-Dingle the lion tamer (although Charles was so friendly he hadn’t needed taming for years), had been a star turn. He’d put his head in the lion’s mouth even further than normal and had held it in for nearly a whole minute, which considering the smell was not something to be sniffed at…It was something people would be telling their friends at work or in the playground about the next day for sure. And for all the right reasons…

While Cook and the Doctor talked, the slick black shape of Fish, the circus’s sea lion, was sneaking thought the kitchen, across to the trays of cooked fish, where he immediately began wolfing down as big mouthfuls as he could manage. And this was what he was doing when Cook turned round and saw him,

Uh-oh, Fizz thought.

If there’d been a handle to hand, Cook would’ve flown off it. Since there wasn’t, he threw his ladle at Fish.

The sea lion lifted his head at just that moment. His face was covered with thick white fishy sauce, which his fat black tongue was quickly cleaning off, and he wasn’t paying attention to flying utensils. The ladle caught him just above the eye with a loud bonk! and went spinning off to clatter into the kitchen.

Cook followed the ladle with some of his choicest swear words, loudly accusing Fish of ruining everyone’s dinner by sticking his smelly filthy hear in their food. (p.14-15)

Are you laughing yet?  No.  Didn’t think so.

I continued reading in hope.  But no. The lion tamer, Captain Fox-Dingle, has a coat of arms on his circus coat that he designed himself “a fox and a lion facing each other across a chair, enclosed in a circle which, if you looked closely, was made from a whip.’ (p.41)

A discussion about Charles the lion getting old and no longer being able to perform is only regretful because the act is so ‘perfect’.

‘But the act went so well last night,’ Fizz protested. ‘It was perfect.’

‘Good show.’

Captain Fox-Dingle shrugged and sat silently for a minute. The sadness of the moment seeped into them all.

An aside about zoo’s is included with the irony:

…a zoo could be constructed entirely of empty enclosures, empty cages and interesting labels, and that this would be a deeply satisfying experience for the visitors, who would enjoy the challenge of spotting the rare and elusive animals, and much more fun for the animals who wouldn’t have to live in cages any more’. (p. 65)

The sea lion, Pescado, the ‘Quarium’s latest star, is both funny and touching: a brilliant comedian, an astonishing acrobat and, and, as you’d expect, an accomplished swimmer. Wherever the Admiral found this wily, winsome, witty beast, I recommend he go back and find some more. For once a show worth seeing. Three stars. (p.177)

When Fish, the sea lion, disappears the Admiral suggests:

‘Maybe he’s heard the call of the ocean singing in his salty veins. Maybe he has been called home.’

Fizz hoped what the Admiral was saying wasn’t true, that Fish hadn’t grown tired of travelling around with the circus.

You’re another one of them animal trainers.’ Cook spat at the ground, as if the words disgusted him. ‘There’s loads of your sort around here. Trembly with all her lovely horses, prancing around with their feathery headdresses. Erasmus Dockery and his Educated Iguanas. Dingle, with his mangy old lion. Oh, I remember when he turned up, when the Ringmaster made the announcement. Coming in, stealing the show, stealing the limelight. “We’ve got a lion act now,” They said,  no need for Terry Trapp’s boy.” Criminal! That’s what it was. Criminal! (p. 245)

Criminal indeed. Charles the lion does go to a retirement home and into his ‘large cage’ goes the crocodile who will become the replacement act because Fizz thought:

 a circus can’t stand still, even the best act must move on.

I am so sorry I bought these books.  I did read Fizzlebert Stump and the Bearded Boy but after the rabbit was poisoned by  circus inspectors and the confused sea lion became a laughing matter I conclude that this series is no laughing matter. So, onto something a bit better.

Claude at the Circus by Alex T. Smith

The children in my library adore the Claude series by Alex T Smith.  In Claude at the Circus, the only animal (apart from Claude the dog) is a lion that Claude thinks might have escaped from the zoo. In the circus scenes we only see clowns, acrobats and trapeze artists. So far so good.  Claude at the Circus by Alex T. Smith

But look at responses to a review of this book on the blog Boys and Literacy

How incredibly sad that adults think the excitement a child will feel seeing an animal ‘perform’ outweighs the suffering.  If I ask my students to research this subject most internet sources will describe the suffering, cruelty and unethical treatment of circus animals.  I hope that now, my library’s printed sources, will provide the same information and not this ‘dumbed down’ and outdated notion that animal suffering amuses children. Library books must keep up to date with the law! As librarian this is my responsibility.

Spy Pups: Circus Act by Andrew Cope and illustrated by James de la Rue is a fun chapter book from the Spy Dogs/Spy Pups series published by Puffin.  It is a very popular series with Grades 2,3,4 and 5. It’s no coincidence that jewels go missing when the circus is in town so the spy pups, infiltrate the circus by putting on juggling act.  There are lots of comments about circus animals:

‘It’d be so exciting to visit the circus.’
‘But the elephant and lions are not so exciting,’ yapped Spud. That’s cruel!’  (p. 35)

“They also shared the lorry with Gordon Gibbons the monkey trainer. He had a pair of identical monkeys: small, brown and cheeky.
At least they’re not chained up, thought Spud.” (p. 45)

“The candy floss seller was doing a roaring trade and there was a line of children queuing to feed the elephant, who looked tired of eating peanuts.” (p.59)

“So had the lion. It was rare anyone ever came close to his cage. Angry at being locked up for so long, he’d scratched a few people in his time, and the keeper had erected huge Danger signs…The lion nosed at the cage door. It was open. The big cat felt pleased to be out.” (p. 99)

So, despite a little human torture when Clarissa White threatens the ringmaster/ring leader with some unnecessary dental work, Andrew Cope has written an exciting circus story whilst gently introducing the idea that keeping animals in a circus is cruel.  He even ensures the piranhas are saved as they leap from an exploding tank. Andrew Cope has his own Lara (chief Spy Dog) adopted from the RSPCA so if I had a ‘w is for whale’ ethical children’s book award he would certainly be short listed.

Hetty Feather by Jacqueline Wilson and illustrated by Nick Sharratt is the story of a ‘foundling’ who starts her life with foster parents in the country.  Beguiled by a travelling circus, Hetty’s enthusiasm for an exciting life and her longing for her real mother leads her to believe that Madame Adeline, the lady who rides the circus horses, is her mum. Through Hetty’s eyes we see the allure of the circus and all of it’s animals.

Jem felt me fidgeting and put his hands on my shoulders to steady me – just as Elijah’s trainer stood up, stretching his arms in the air. I froze – but all his attention was on Elijah. He went up close to the great beast, lolling against the huge front legs. Elijah lowered his head, waved his trunk and opened his mouth. I held my breath, wondering if the beast was about to devour his master before my very eyes. But the elephant looked as if he was smiling. He slowly and tenderly wrapped his trunk around the trainer’s neck and shoulders so that they stood in weird embrace. (p. 80)

Hetty’s daydreams about performing in the circus intensify as she is sent to the Foundling Hospital were she feels very hard done to.  Not until she runs away in the hope of finding Madame Adeline and Tanglefield’s Travelling Circus does she realise that things could be much worse. She befriends another girl, Sissy, who marvels that the hospital provided Hetty with free food and education. Sissy has to fend for herself, selling flowers to make money for food, medicine for her sister and her drunken father’s beer.  As Hetty awakens to reality,  the magical appeal of the circus wears away. Madame Adeline tells Hetty that it is impossible that she is her mother and warns Hetty about circus life:

But the circus is no life for a child. There’s such hardship, such struggle, such pain. I’ve seen tiny children of three and four screaming as they’re bent in two, their limbs twisted this way and that by their own parents to crick them into the right kind of bendiness for an acrobat act. It’s especially no life for little girls, with all the men leering at their brief costumes in the ring. Terrible things happen, Hetty, terrible things. (p. 328)

…but now that I knew Chino was just a sad old man doing his job I could not find him funny. I did not even enjoy it when he ran rings around Elijah the elephant and performed his clockwork-mouse trick. I could not marvel at Elijah either as he wearily performed each plodding trick his skin sagging, his tiny eyes half blinded by the bright flare of gaslight. (p.330)

With her last pennies, Hetty takes a ride on a elephant in the Zoological Gardens (presumably Jumbo) and upset by her treatment by a wealthy family she looks around her:

…I diverted myself by inspecting all the creatures in their cages: the scampering monkeys, the pacing lions, the savage bear in his pit. I felt sorry for all these poor caged animals. I wanted to set them free… (p. 345)

I enjoyed Hetty Feather and all the references to life as a foundling in Victorian times and there is lots to discuss with readers of this book: treatment of animals, the poor, the lower classes, charity work and changing times and attitudes. Hetty’s adventures continue in Sapphire Battersea, Emerald Star, Diamond, and Little Stars.

Two picture books that I have had in the library for many years are Cannonball Simp by John Burningham and Ginger Jumps by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Both books are about dogs performing in the circus. I realise that some dogs don’t need much encouragement to perform tricks (my neighbour’s springer spaniel is one) but let’s remind ourselves that taking children to watch animals perform unnatural behaviour such as jumping off very high platforms, or standing on their hind legs for large amount of times is demeaning to both animal and child.

Simp is an ‘ugly little’ dog who is cruelly abandoned at a garbage dump. Burningham’s illustrations are moving. After surviving on the streets and escaping the dog catcher, Simp finds her way to the circus and is taken in by a clown. Meeting elephants and lions, Simp notices that the clown was worried. People did not like his act anymore. Simp has a plan, she climbs into the cannon and flies through the paper hoop held by the clown. The clown and Simp tour the ring on the back of a horse whilst everybody claps and cheers.

One evening he took Simp outside the town and just left her near a garbage dump.

She came across some trash cans. She started looking through them for food and did not notice the cats who were angrily watching her.

“Got you,” said the dogcatcher.

It was warm and comfortable in the trailer, and the clown let Simp lie on his bed.

Simp climbed into the cannon while nobody was looking.

The ringmaster told the clown and Simp that their act was the best the circus had ever had.

In Ginger Jumps by Lisa Campbell Ernst, Ginger the small, brown puppy is born into circus life. Ginger learns tricks and begins to dream of having a little girl of her own to love. Despite being frightened, Ginger climbs an ‘impossibly high’ staircase and jumps onto the trampoline below into the arms of a little girl clown.

No matter how hard she tried, Ginger could not jump.

“Welcome to the most spectacular show in the world!”

And, taking a deep breath, Ginger jumped.

Whilst on the search for books about the circus that do not include animals or that show how life is like for circus animals I came across a review for The Circus Ship by Chris van Dusen.


The review was on the blog ‘What Can We Do with Paper and Glue’ 

I have mixed feelings about this book.  The story is funny and cute– a circus ship sinks the animals swim to a nearby island where the residents learn to love them.  Then the mean, cruel circus owner comes back to claim the animals, but they hide and he leaves empty handed.  I also loved the illustrations which are crisp and vivid, and are done in sort of a cartoony style.  What I didn’t like was that the circus owner was portrayed as mean and cruel, and that the animals were saved from a terrible fate by escaping from the circus.  It would make it hard to take my kids to enjoy the circus if they felt that way about the animals performing.  And of course, there are some legitimate questions that one can ask about how circus animals are treated.  It’s not something that I want my toddler and preschooler to be worrying about, though. (Books about the circus/What can we do with paper and glue)

So, I have placed an order for this wonderful sounding book by van Dusan. When my students see books about circus animals I want them to question what happens to these animals. I want them to know that in many countries treating animals this way is illegal. In fact, even without any laws, treating animals this way is inhumane and that is a fact that we should all be worried about.














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