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Preventing animal abuse in circuses

Region: Ontario Answer # 4041

The new Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act, 2019 provides that no person shall cause an animal to be in “distress”. Distress is defined as “the state of being in need of proper care, water, food or shelter or being injured, sick or in pain or suffering or being abused or subject to undue or unnecessary physical or psychological hardship, privation or neglect.”

This law gives authorities the right to inspect premises, other than homes, where animals are kept for exhibit, entertainment, boarding or for sale or hire. This includes circuses. View the Act for a list of offences and punishments.

In Ontario, the Municipal Act also allows local municipalities to pass by-laws regarding the prohibition, regulation and licensing of exhibitions, menageries, circus riding, and other similar kinds of shows.

To prohibit the keeping of particular species of animals or “exotic” animals within the jurisdiction, an increasing number of municipal jurisdictions across the country have put by-laws in place or are in the process of doing so.

These bylaws were enacted due to concerns regarding:

  • the cruel ways that performing animals are often trained;
  • the stressful and impoverished conditions in which the animals often live; and
  • the well-being of the general public whose safety may be threatened when exposed to wild, dangerous, and sometimes sick animals.

Currently, however, there are only a few municipalities in Ontario, including Cobourg and Stratford, with bylaws banning wild or exotic animal shows or wild or exotic animals in circuses.

Regulations regarding the ownership of exotic pets as well as the care and control of animals may be found in other municipal, provincial and federal laws (such as the Criminal Code of Canada – see below). Visit other sections of Animal Law for more information.

What can you do about concerns over animals in circuses?

If you are concerned about animal abusing circuses coming to your community, the first step you could take is to contact your municipal councillor. Your municipal councillor may be able to advise you as to whether you should contact the municipal clerk or a particular committee responsible for amendments to by-laws. Animal protections groups can also help you collect necessary information.

If your local by-laws do provide for the protection of animals already and you feel that the circus is in violation of the by-laws, you should notify the centre for animal control. If you do not know how to contact them, contact your municipal government office and they will direct you.

If you find that your local by-laws do not contain provisions regarding the prohibition of maintaining certain species of animals or regulations on minimum standards of how animals are to be treated, you could attempt to bring about a change in the local by-laws. Again, your municipal councillor will be able to guide you on how to begin the process.

Criminal Code of Canada

In some cases, the poor treatment of circus animals may constitute a criminal offence. If the situation is dire enough, you could call the Humane Society or the police and have those responsible charged criminally. The Criminal Code of Canada has several sections dealing with Cruelty to Animals. The Criminal Code gives the police and the Humane Society the authority to investigate complaints regarding cruelty to animals and to lay charges where appropriate.

For example, it is a criminal offence for the owner or the person with custody or control of an animal, to fail to provide the animal with suitable and adequate food, water, shelter and care. Depending on how serious the charge is, the offender may have to pay a fine, or go to jail. If you decide to contact the police or the Humane Society, you should do it quickly since the circus is usually in town for only a short time.

If you witness an act of cruelty or neglect to an animal or suspect it is taking place, contact your local Humane Society or SPCA.

For more information regarding the law regarding the use of animals for entertainment, including in circuses, view 4042 Animals in entertainment.


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