What the ‘Dumbo’ Movie Can Teach Us About Life As a Circus Animal

What the ‘Dumbo’ Movie Can Teach Us About Life As a Circus Animal

Disney’s latest feature-length film, “Dumbo” brings with it a dose of good old-fashioned Disney controversy. In this case, is it promoting cruel circuses? Or is it taking a stand for animal rights?

Disney movies are no strangers to controversy: When Walt and Roy Disney started on their first feature-length animation, 1937’s classic “Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs,” the studio was criticized for going far over budget (they fundraised for ten times the cost of their shorts and then went more than five times over that). The film was even dubbed “Walt Disney’s Folly” because of the production costs. (But despite its astronomical spend, it’s still the highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation).

Through the years, though, the studio has seen its share of criticism on a number of other films and for far more serious issues than going wild with the budgets. Most recently, 2016’s hit animation “Moana” was criticized for depicting Polynesians as overweight and goofy by the portrayal of the inane character Maui (Dwayne Johnson); 1995’s “Pocahontas” was not only historically inaccurate to the disappointment of many, but it perpetuated negative stereotypes about Native American cultures (as did the studio’s 1953 “Peter Pan”); the Siamese cats in the “Lady and the Tramp” did the same about Asian stereotypes; and in the original “Dumbo” (1941), one of the crow characters was named Jim Crow, the same name as the nation’s segregation laws, but was voiced by a white actor (Cliff Edwards).

Now, with award-winning director Tim Burton behind the camera, the new Disney “Dumbo” remake is claiming it holds strong animal rights messages. Does it?

Circuses Long History of Animal Abuse

Circuses Long History of Animal Abuse
Vintage circus poster shows the long history of animal exploitation

“It’s funny, but I truly never liked the circus,” Burton said in a recent interview. “You’ve got animals being tortured, you’ve got death-defying acts, and you’ve got clowns. It’s like a horror show. What’s to like?”

Circuses were once the leading entertainment medium around the world, but they have largely fallen out of fashion in recent years. The inimitable circus leader for over a century, Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, finally ceased operations in 2017 signaling the end of an era after nearly four decades of PETA protests.

It’s a bit hard to imagine anything more challenging, peculiar, and potentially disastrous than transporting giant, wild animals around the world on boats and train cars. But that’s exactly how circuses happened — traveling was the lifeblood of the big tent, and for proprietors, bringing these wild beasts to every town they could was a critical means to staying in business and dominating over competitors. In the 1800s and early 1900s, elephants or tigers could have been aliens to most people — much of the world couldn’t even imagine what they looked like, let alone believe they were actually real. Circuses brought the mystery and the magic, effectively keeping the misery hidden as best they could.

But in order to move these animals from town to town and then make them perform night after night (often several times in a night as well), force and fear were a trainer’s most effective tools. Animals were routinely beaten, starved, and isolated. These methods still linger today in traveling circuses and other venues that exploit animals for entertainment. Elephants, in particular, are routinely beaten with bullhooks, sticks with sharp ends that are often disguised when performing so audiences don’t even realize it’s being used to remind the elephants of the potential pain if they don’t perform.

Both ends of the bullhook inflict damage,” PETA Latino notes. “The trainer uses the hook and the point to apply varying degrees of pressure to sensitive spots on the elephant’s body. Holding the hooked end, the trainer swings the handle like a baseball bat, inflicting substantial pain when the elephant is struck on the ankle and other areas where there is little tissue between skin and bone. While in public, handlers often carry bullhooks that are much smaller than the ones used in training, but because the elephants have been so thoroughly conditioned to fear them, they’ll still obey.”

Lady Freethinker Founder Nina Jackel calls it a “horror show.”

“Baby elephants like Dumbo snatched from their mothers in the wild, forced by threat of pain to perform silly tricks for our amusement,” she says. “Their young bodies tied down with ropes in grueling training sessions, they’re beaten into submission with whips and bullhooks.”

But it’s not just beatings that make circuses no fun for animals. Confinement is a major problem as circuses travel nearly year-round, in all weather extremes. “While in transit, the animals are confined to trailers or trucks, where they may not have access to basic necessities, such as food, water, and veterinary care,” PETA explains. “Elephants are chained, and big cats are imprisoned in cramped, filthy cages, in which they eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and urinate—all in the same place. And there’s no relief once the animals reach a venue, where they remain caged and are chained in arena basements and parking lots.”

Life for other circus animals, says Jackel, is no better, either; “on the road for months on end in tiny, cramped cages, they have no chance for a natural existence.” 

And while the circus industry is now but a shell of its former glory days, there are still circuses in operation across the globe traveling from town to town the old-fashioned way — as the only way to move large animals is by train, truck, or ship.

The Circus Cruelty Prevention Act

What the ‘Dumbo’ Movie Can Teach Us About Life As a Circus Animal
Circus elephants are beaten, chained, and starved.

But activists are hard at work getting those tents down once and for all. New legislation in California (SB-313), the Circus Cruelty Prevention Act, is aimed at banning animal circuses from the most populous state in the country.

“The impact of this critical bill would affect circuses across the nation,” says Jackel. “Traveling animal acts would no longer be welcome in the state, leaving circuses with two choices: either find another home for the animals while touring in California, or leave them out of the show completely and go animal-free.”

She says passing the bill is a “must” if the state wants to retain its status “as the most forward-thinking state in the nation.” And it would place the state on the same level as its biggest cities: “Los Angeles, San Francisco and dozens of other California cities already have restrictions on the use of wild animals in circuses, traveling shows and/or other forms of entertainment,” she says.

More governments are cracking down on circuses. India banned animal performance-based circuses in 2017. Hawaii banned them last December. New Jersey passed a similar ban last November. Last month, Washington D.C. banned the Garden Bros. circus from using any talent except “human performers.”  

And with the growing number of non-animal circuses like the popular Cirque Du Soleil now selling out across the world, consumers are opting for ethical entertainment.

Is ‘Dumbo’ Promoting Circuses?


Is ‘Dumbo’ Promoting Circuses?
Does ‘Dumbo’ promote circus cruelty?

Whenever a film tackles oppression or captivity there are some murky lines often easily crossed.

But for PETA, the largest animal rights organization in the world, “Dumbo” is a win for animals.

“This film offers thoughtful messages about animal rights,” the group said in a recent statement.

And cast members seem to agree.

“I look at [“Dumbo”] as a story that permitted itself to have an opinion on whether it’s right or wrong to have animals in captivity, and the opinion that it expresses I, of course, would fall on the side of,” said Colin Farrell, who plays Holt Farrier in the film.

“There’s a lot good themes in the movie, ones that were preserved from the Disney original and the ones that we’ve added,” echoes Danny DeVito, who plays the circus’s ringleader. “And I think a lot of people are going to enjoy the fact that we’ve dealt with [animal rights] the way that we have.”

Eva Green, who plays an acrobat in the film says she’s “very proud” of Disney for taking a stand.

 “I just hope it will make people care for elephants and make them want to fight for them because elephants are facing extinction and we want those majestic creatures to still be around.”

“Dumbo also exposes the dark side of the circus—from Michael Keaton’s character, who’s intent on exploiting Dumbo at all costs, to the humiliation and pain that animals experience when they’re forced to perform stupid tricks,” PETA notes.

PETA has been protesting circuses for nearly 40 years — and was instrumental in shutting down Ringling Bros. — but the group warns there are still a number of animal-focused circuses, such as Garden Bros. and Carson & Barnes.


The group says Garden Bros. was the subject of a recent whistleblower report that accused its handler of “warming up” elephants “by jabbing them with a bullhook or shocking them with a Taser before they came on stage.”

And the group says it’s not just circuses, but other entertainment mediums that frequently subject wild animals to cruelty, real elephants—and many other animals—continue to suffer around the world in the name of entertainment, including for movies and television shows.”

But if ‘Dumbo’ proves anything, it may just be that the spotlight shines brightest on a world with happy endings.