Animals in the Circus: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

The animals are always one of the biggest attractions for circuses, both modern and ancient. They include huge animals, trained to put on a show, from all over the world. Learn about circuses and their animals in this lesson.

Bigger Is Better

Not many people get a chance to travel to the safaris and jungles of Africa to meet elephants, giraffes, gorillas, and lions. The good news is that we live in a world that can bring animals to you! In addition to zoos, one of the most popular ways to see large animals from around the world is to head to the circus, where you can find trained animals who aren't just big, but also take part in performances. Circuses are an ancient invention, and each one has different types of animals.

Circus Maximus

The word circus comes from the Latin, where it means ring or circle. That's because the Romans who came up with these Latin words really enjoyed it when they could gather around a show. They built huge circular paths for their chariot races, then built rows of seats for everyone to watch them. The first circus only had one animal: the horses that Romans used for racing. As time went on, however, they enjoyed the sight of more and more animals, including those they brought together to fight one another at gladiator games.

Roman image of elephant and lion
Roman mosaic

The Romans had a chariot raceway called the Circus Maximus, which still stands today. After the Roman Empire collapsed about 1,500 years ago, it would be a long time before anyone started up a circus again. However, this didn't mean people couldn't see animals, because organizers of fairs or big gatherings sometimes brought creatures like bears to be shown off, or to fight other animals.

American Circuses

At first, the American circus looked a lot like the ancient Roman circus, with nothing but horses. The first circus we know of in the US took place in 1793, when a horse trainer decided to make some money by showing off all the tricks that his horses could do. Eventually, however, they decided that something bigger would draw more crowds. They managed to buy an elephant for $1,000 (at a time when most people made about a dollar per day) that they named Old Bet and displayed.

A page from an 1890s book about training elephants for the circus
Circus training book

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