LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."
Here's a warmly recommended book to look out for on World Circus Day, this Saturday - and no, it's not my own! Big Top Typewriter charts David Lewis Hammarstrom's half-century voyage through the choppy waters of the American circus scene.
A common accusation against circuses is that animals are 'forced' to perform, when the truth is that they are encouraged to exhibit behaviour that they find natural and enjoyable. Training and performance are organised play, like an owner throwing a ball for a dog to retrieve. The dog brings back the ball because he enjoys the game, as can be seen by his eagerness to repeat it. It would be impossible to force such a response.
In any group of animals of the same type, whether dogs, horses or lions, some individuals will be cleverer than others or stronger in some skills than others. A circus trainer's skill lies in being sensitive to each animal's nature and matching it to an appropriate routine. A particularly agile animal would be trained in jumping, for example. A more docile or affectionate one would be chosen for close contact work where the presenter hugs or kisses the animal.
But what happens to animals that don't enjoy training at all? They don't get trained, simple as that.
That was the case with Syas one of the tigers in Thomas Chipperfield's show An Evening With Lions and Tigers. Syas has now left the company for a new home, and the following statement from the show illustrates the love and responsibility trainers feel towards even those animals who don't wish to perform:
We stopped including Syas in our shows back in 2014 as his personality did not fit with preforming. He has a very short attention span and likes to do his own thing. Like people animals are individuals some take to working and preforming very well such as Syas’ brother Altai who enjoys working and human interaction. We would never force any of our animals to do something they are not completely happy and comfortable with. We decided to keep Syas with us for company for his brother, however, over the past 12 months as they have matured they have grown apart. Altai has shown more and more affection towards the lions and his human carers while Syas does his own thing. So with great consideration and emotional turmoil we decided he would be best suited to a zoo environment where he could be potentially part of a breeding program for these endangered species. We found a home back in 2016, however we pulled the plug after information came to light that the home was not suitable and we would not send any of our animals to a home we were not 100% satisfied with. Then this year as the opportunity arouse for home that seemed perfect after much communication and seeing the new habitat plans offered for him we decided to go ahead with the rehome. It’s important our animals’ individual needs come first above our own personal attachment. Tsavo, Assegai and Altai are all very happy together and are eager to start our tour this season.
If you go down to the cemetery... forget killer clowns. Watch out for sacrilegious aerial dancers
Has the image of circus hit an all-time low? Once the big top was a magical place that whole families flocked to for wholesome entertainment. Clowns - how funny! Trapeze artists - how daring! Elephants - just look how big they are!
These days the media mostly greets the circus with contempt and outrage. The animal issue has, of course, decimated the traditional circus.
Last week, The Sun, the good old Current Bun, spat its hate at a "Sick" Ukrainian circus in which a bear is made to salute and a sea lion made to look as if he's playing the guitar. Who but the depraved could find pleasure in such degradation?
Clowns are no longer funny, nor even scary but just plain dangerous. This month a young man was given six months for chasing a couple down the street while dressed as a clown. Okay, he had an axe. But you'd think the fact he was dressed as a clown would have flagged the incident up as a harmless teenage prank. I mean, look at that guy in the clown suit - he's just playing around, right? But no. The judge said the fact the lad was wearing a clown mask was "an aggravating factor."
Clearly when you see a clown these days you don't think, "Ha, ha! Friendly, funny man!" You think, "Homicidal maniac! Run!"
At least there's all-human, clown-free new circus to pull circus tricks out of the mire and restore them to a place of respectability -right?
Well, there was. But now the Australian company Circa has caused fresh ire with its plans for a show in a cemetery.
"Abhorrent!" screams the headline on the BBC's website. "Disrespectful," say residents with loved ones buried nearby. "Sacrilegious!" says another.
Just when you thought these new circus Johnnies were almost civilised it turns out they're as bad as those buggers with the lions! Deport the lot of them! Or lock 'em up! Or... or... I don't know... just don't buy a ticket!
Still, there was one interesting thing in the report, and that was a surprisingly concise definition of the difference between old circus and new.
According to one objector: ".They are swinging from trees like acrobats, performing what is in effect a circus act."
I like that "in effect." Even the protesters know modern circus ain't quite circus as we remember it. Which is a fact one of the council bods sponsoring the show as part of Hull's City of Culture celebrations astutely confirms: "This is contemporary circus, which is best described as aerial dance."
I think that's something traditional circus fans have been trying to say for years.
An American circus that raises money for good causes is bringing back its tigers and elephants thanks to popular demand.
The Melha Shrine Circus, which supports charities including children's hospitals, lost money for the first time in its 63-year history last year, after dropping animal acts in the face of protests.
"We had people asking for refunds after finding out there were no animals," says circus chairman Allen Zippin, who has brought back elephants, tigers and dogs.
The news comes as America's longest-running circus, Ringling, prepares to pack its trunk after a fall-off in ticket sales following the retirement of its elephants last year - and proves that if circuses want to survive they have to please their friends not their enemies.
Animal rights protesters often argue that all-human shows like Cirque du Soleil don't need animal acts to thrill. But when the circuses they complain about stop using animals, those same protesters clearly don't support them by buying tickets.
Protesters make a lot of noise in the media, circus fans a lot less so. But as the Melha Shrine Circus has found, the ring of the cash register speaks louder than the shouts at the gate.
The Fédération Mondiale du Cirque has had a tradition since 2009 of awarding the prestigious title of Circus Ambassador each January to a personality whose contribution to the preservation, development and promotion of circus arts is an example to follow.The nominee in 2017 is Mr. Maxim Nikulin.
The plaque was handled by Mr. Urs Pilz, President of the Federation, at the Circus Directors’ luncheon in Monte-Carlo during the 41st International Circus Festival.
If you're in reach of Lowestoft at the beginning of March, be sure to grab a ticket for A Variety of Clown Comedy at the Seagull Theatre. The show, on March 1 and 2 is the highlight of Clown Gathering UK, when clowns who have come together from all over the UK and as far away as Canada for a week of talks and workshops step on stage to show the public what they can do.
Last year's revue provided a unique chance to see such a wide range of clowns and clowning styles on one stage, and this year's show looks set to do the same.
Tickets are available from the Seagull box office on 01502 589726.
The announcement of Ringling Bros circus closing this year, makes it an apt juncture to re-read the words of tiger tamer Thomas Chipperfield in the Times, above. (Click on the image and it should come up big enough to read)
The end of Ringling has been claimed as a victory by animal rights campaigners. It was their lobbying that led to the legislation in key American cities like Los Angeles that made travelling with an animal show as big as Ringling untenable - and it was when they took the elephants out of the show that people stopped buying tickets.
But where will the victory lead?
As Chipperfield points out, circuses have only ever been the thin end of the wedge. The animal rights movement is an ideology that wants to outlaw zoos, horse riding, pet ownership, meat eating, leather and even wool production. Peta is open about it, although no one seems to listen, or maybe care.
Perhaps one day, when it's their dogs and cats and Big Macs at stake, the world will remember that a lion tamer tried to warn them that it was about much more than circuses all along.
And that the elephants that disappeared from Ringling last year were really canaries in a coal mine.