"My research has clearly indicated that circuses are not inherently detrimental to the welfare of elephants." That's a typically hedged scholarly conclusion, yet there are plentiful references for the interested researcher. Other highlights:
Training, performances, and the presence of the public are important stimuli and sources of variation for the elephants and big cats that we studied. In addition elephants often went for walks, baths, raised or took down tents, pulled vehicles out of the mud, and gave rides. I also found that repeated head-bobbing, swaying or pacing was highly variable and did not occur in many animals. Repetitive behavior greatly increased in frequency in anticipation of performances, receiving water and being fed. This implies that elephants and tigers perceived performances as something positive; if they were fearful of performances they would show an avoidance response.
The research also reports a phenomenon experienced circus hands know well.
I also had the opportunity to conduct some informal trials in which groups of elephants remained where they were usually kept rather than being taken into the tent for performances. Based on the results of those trials, there is no doubt that many circus elephants find performances to be rewarding. The elephants that were kept “home” became very agitated and even performed elements of their acts on their own.
Young elephants have been observed rehearsing their acts in winter quarters or during the evening if they aren't back at the train.

It's worth remembering that the menagerie part of the circus is the original, traveling, zoological garden.
When we look at the traditional measures of overall welfare, especially longevity and reproduction, circuses are more successful than zoos. The claim by activists that elephants in captivity in North America and Europe do not live as long as elephants in logging camps or in the wild is unfounded. A major problem with that claim is that the management and care of elephants has greatly evolved over the last 40 years. Most elephants who experienced modern management practices in zoos and circuses are still alive, so we do not have reliable estimates of longevity for animals in captivity. Using the age of death of elephants that have died prematurely in captivity, or died years ago before management significantly changed, is inherently biased. I am more concerned about the chronic boredom experienced by many zoo and sanctuary animals whose activity and environmental options are greatly limited because of restricted contact than I am about the welfare of animals traveling with a well-managed circus or elephants giving tourists rides into the bush. The key is having responsible and caring people taking care of the elephants.
A hardscrabble circus, or a circus run by grifters, is another matter. It's likely, though, that the human performers on a hardscrabble circus also enjoy a more difficult life.  Circus fiction often depicts that.

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