The welfare of Ringling Bros.' elephants has long been a topic of concern. But a new report says that the circus's big cats could be suffering just as badly.

Jay Pratte, an animal trainer with 25 years of experience, recently observed two performances of the Ringling Bros. circus in Lincoln, Nebraska. What he saw was a nightmare for tigers, he said.

"The announcers, trainers, and staff state that the animals are managed with rewards and through trust," Pratte noted in his report, which was published by PETA. "However, what is actually occurring is environmental and physiological neglect, psychological abuse, and coercing the tigers to behave through dominance and fear-based techniques."

Training

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.

Tigers during a performance — Pratte said they appeared afraidJay Pratte

"The primary means that 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 trainers' hands, the assistants carry them, and they are left strategically near the cats to remain readily available."

Unfortunately, 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" — photos released of the circus's former training grounds show that calves were nearly tortured into performing.

Ringling Bros.' former elephant training methodsSam Haddock/PETA

After being taken away from their mothers just hours after birth, the baby elephants were tied up with ropes and physically forced into the unnatural positions trainers wanted. The photos echo the brutal "training crush" elephants in Asia are subjected to to make them handleable — so-called because it crushes the animal's spirit.

In the cats' case, Pratte said, their fear was palpable both in their enclosures and during shows.

"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."

A tiger displaying an ears-back stance, indicative of fearJay Pratte

"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."

This sort of training, Pratte said, is not only psychologically torturous to the animals, but also makes them more dangerous, as the trust between their keepers and them is shattered.

"I observed multiple situations in which the tigers displayed definite aggression toward [one of the trainers]," he said. "These animals do not have a trusting relationship with staff and endure this punitive, adverse environment daily."

The cats were both scared of and antagonistic toward trainers, Pratte said.Jay Pratte

One 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."

Housing

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 severely lacking, 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. The pens were barren, with no toys or enrichment aside from "a couple of small logs."

The cats were packed into barren cages on a parking lotJay Pratte

When 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 enclosures for the cats since they weren't going to be in the city long enough, despite a nearly week-long stay. "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."

And though tigers are often solitary animals, they were often kept with at least two other companions in their 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 (or 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."

Two tigers during an altercation, according to PratteJay Pratte

Physical health

Many of the cats also had injuries from fighting — which was exacerbated by putting so many animals in such close quarters. During the three fights Pratte witnessed, he said, he saw 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."

A white tiger covered in scarsJay Pratte

Many of the cats were also noticeably overweight, Pratte said. Their weight put them at risk for conditions like 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."

A visibly overweight tiger in the parking lotJay Pratte

The cats' weight also made lying on their concrete floors, already dangerous for their joints, even more damaging.

"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."

A white tiger with a hygroma on his front legJay Pratte

Many of them also had cracked paws, he reported, 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."

A tiger with cracked pawsJay Pratte

"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.

Mental health

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."

A tiger pacing along his cageJay Pratte

"I also observed cats licking their paws continuously, exacerbating cracking, and one was stereotypically over-grooming his or her tail," he added. "These are well-documented big-cat stereotyped behaviors, and they are indicative of poor welfare and a lack of psychological stimulation."

He also said that one trainer told him that Ringling Bros. obtains its big cats as cubs, when they're torn away from their mothers, and that staff are encouraged to play with them as babies — an unnatural early maternal loss, and even more unnatural human interference, that can lead to a lifetime of psychological confusion for wild animals.

Tigers during an altercationJay Pratte

"Carnivore cubs under one or two years of age are at a critical learning juncture, when they would be learning necessary life skills from their mothers and species-appropriate social skills from mother [and] siblings," Pratte said. He explained that human-reared cubs can develop a number of problems, including excessive aggression towards other animals and humans, and "long-term depressive traits."

"These observations are not an exhaustive list of the psychological neglect and trauma that these cats endure daily," Pratte added. "[But] they do indicate poor animal welfare and neglect on the part of Ringling Bros."

A questionable future

For Pratte, the takeaways from his visit to Ringling Bros. were clear — as was the future for these cats if nothing is done to improve their welfare.

"The tigers I observed are under constant psychological duress, which results in acute and chronic medical concerns for these animals," he said. "The cumulative effects of distress will likely shorten these animals' lives and, in severe cases, lead to myopathy, injury, or even death."

A worker with a prod in handJay Pratte

Pratte, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska and works as a welfare consultant for a number of well-known organizations, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA; the top zoo accreditation group in the U.S.) and the USDA, noted that the conditions he saw at Ringling Bros. are a far cry from either AZA or USDA standards — even though many animal welfare groups consider USDA standards lacking.

"It is my professional and expert opinion that the tigers I observed before and during the Ringling Bros. Red Unit shows are suffering from neglect as well as ongoing physical and psychological trauma and are not provided with … proper care," Pratte said. "If conditions cannot be improved … then the big cats would be better served by living in a certified or accredited institution."

Tufts of hair after a fight between tigersJay Pratte

While public outcry over Ringling Bros.' elephants forced the circus to retire them from performing earlier this year, few people realize that lions and tigers are suffering just as much. While Ringling Bros. is unlikely to change its practices on its own, Platte is hoping that the public will come to realize just how damaging Ringling Bros., and other companies like it, really are.

"Circuses do not promote conservation, education, or the advancement of animal welfare or management techniques," Platte said. "They are a cruel relic from human history."

Tigers in the ringJay Pratte

Want to help the Ringling Bros. cats and others like them? First and foremost, avoid any circuses or shows where big cats are performing. You can sign a petition here asking Ringling Bros. to retire its animals to sanctuaries — or directly contact Feld Entertainment, the company behind the the circus, here.

You can also make a donation to the Performing Animal Welfare Society, a rescue and sanctuary that is home to several former Ringling animals.