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."

Monday, 12 October 2009

Are circuses cruel to animals?

How the Daily Mail reported the
return of elephants to the
Great British Circus

The issue of animals in circuses will always be a thorny one, writes Douglas McPherson in an article that originally appeared in The Stage.

Beneath the star speckled canvas sky of the big top, poor old Neli is being exploited terribly. One minute she’s being suspended by her ankle, without harness or safety net, above a head first drop to certain death.

Ten minutes later, she’s got a fleece over her costume and is selling teas from the refreshment wagon.

But Neli can‘t complain. The Bulgarian former nurse chose this life when she married acrobat Stefan and formed the Duo Stafaneli (Stefan and Neli, geddit?).

It’s Neli’s four-legged co-stars that have put the Great British Circus in the national news, specifically Sonja, Delhi and Vana Mana, the first elephants to perform in a UK circus ring for a decade - alongside director Martin Lacey’s existing menagerie of Bengal tigers, camels and horses.

When the pachyderms made their debut earlier this year, Dr Rob Atkinson, head of the RSPCA’s wildlife department, called it, “A body blow for animal welfare in this country.”

Me and the elephant
Circus Mania
author Douglas McPherson
meets Great British Circus star Sonja
David Davies, chairman of the Circus Friends Association welcomed the return, commenting, “From my point of view, a circus without animals is not a true circus.”

But was stirring up headlines such as the Daily Mail’s ‘Police On Standby In War Over The Elephants,’ the direction circus should be heading in?

Human shows such as Cirque du Soleil have taken two decades to make circus as fashionable and successful as it has ever been. So wasn’t the return of elephants a step back to the bad old days when the widely held belief that circuses were cruel came close to killing off the art form?

As both circus fan and animal lover, it was with very mixed feelings that I attended the Great British Circus on its first stop of the season, in March.

The show I witnessed assuaged many of my fears and prejudices. True, I winced at the horse trainer’s party piece of making the animals take an awkward one legged ’bow.’

I could also have done without the ‘elephant pyramid,’ in which two pachyderms stand on tubs with their front legs resting on the back of the third. Such majestic creatures don’t need to be oversold with gimmicks.

On the whole, though, the animals appeared in excellent condition. The presentation was relaxed and gentle, and I could see the value of a show that allowed us to get so close to so many exotic beasts. The children in the audience were especially enthralled.

Great British Circus
2009 programme
Talking to Lacey and his fellow tiger trainer Helyne Edmonds afterwards, it was impossible to doubt that they were primarily motivated by their love for their animals, and that their training methods were based on patience and reward, as they claimed.

“It’s organised play,” said Lacey. “If they didn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t do it. That’s why any suggestion of cruelty is spurious. You have to be rather nice to them.”

I have to say he convinced me.

Then, just when I had begun telling everyone I knew that it was safe to go back to the circus, the Great British Circus burst back into the news amid a rash of even worse headlines.

“Beaten and hit with hooks, the cruel fate of our circus elephants,” screamed the Daily Express, as television news broadcast undercover film made by welfare group Animal Defenders International (ADI) that showed chained elephants being beaten in their stable.

The Great British Circus responded with a statement that the groom seen “behaving inappropriately” in the footage was dismissed as soon as his actions came to the attention of the management (which was three months before ADI released the film).

The Circus added that it was considering installing its own surveillance cameras to prevent future lapses of animal care.

But the damage had already been done.

Lacey and other animal trainers would argue that the malpractice of one groom should not be used to judge an entire profession.

But when it comes to the public perception of circus, one bad apple really does taint the taste of the entire barrel.

Great British Circus
director Martin Lacey
For fans like me, who want to believe that animals are safe in the circus, the expose feels like a betrayal of trust that will not quickly be forgotten. However well kept the animals appear to be, and however nice the trainers, will we ever again be able to watch an animal show completely assured that everything is as it should be behind the curtain?

For the opponents of circus, meanwhile, there is now forever on YouTube irrefutable justification for their picket lines outside the circus gates and evidence to back their on-going calls for a government ban.

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Lacey. While other circuses gave up animals in the face of opposition from the welfare groups, Lacey has campaigned for decades to prove that circuses are capable of looking after their beasts.

It’s interesting that the GBC’s press statement repeatedly stresses that the elephants are appearing under contract and not actually owned or trained by the circus.

Perhaps by hiring a German troupe of elephants, complete with its own trainers and grooms, Lacey inadvertently imported lower standards of animal care than his own.

If so, he is presumably kicking himself for scoring a massive own goal for both the Great British Circus and animal circuses as a whole.

Bolivia recently became the first country to ban all animals, domestic and wild, from the circus ring.

It would be a shame if Britain followed suit and lost its last few remaining examples of circuses keeping alive an animal-based tradition established by the British equestrian Philip Astley in 1768.

The elephant in the room
How this article originally appeared in
The Stage
But if animal circuses are ever to be rehabilitated as a guilt-free form of mainstream entertainment, they will have to work a lot harder than they have to clean up their act in the eyes of the public.

They will have to learn to act, both in the ring and backstage, as if the cameras of a hostile animal rights lobby are on them at all times - as indeed they may be.

The lessons from Mary Chipperfield’s conviction for cruelty ten years ago (on the evidence of undercover film) have clearly not been learned.

But will even the most stringent codes of practise, designed to protect both the animals from abuse and their keepers from the suspicion of abuse, ever repair the damage caused by the occasional highly publicised instance of mistreatment, such as this latest?

Sadly, it seems that for as long as circuses have animals, the spectre of cruelty, real or suspected, will always be the elephant in the room.

Big cats back in Britain
at Jolly's Circus
Update 2014
At the end of 2012, Martin Lacey retired from the big cat cage and closed his Great British Circus. His tigers are now in Ireland, leaving only two or three UK circuses with horses, camels and dogs. A ban on wild animals in British circuses has been proposed for 2015. But around the world, the issue of animals in circus refuses to go away. In Las Vegas, the previously all-human Cirque du Soleil recently augmented its magic show with its first live elephant... and in autumn 2013, big cats returned to the British circus ring when Thomas Chipperfield brought his lions and tigers to Jolly's Circus.

See also my interview with Martin Lacey.

It was a visit to the Great British Circus that prompted me to write Circus Mania. Up to that point, I'd become fascinated by the skills of human circus stars and the dangers they diced with in their acts on the flying trapeze of wheel or death. But when I saw a news report on the return of the elephants to the Great British Circus I glimpsed a sight of an earlier, more raw circus tradition, because it was in sawdust rings full of tigers, horses and elephants that the history of circus lay. I went along with mixed feelings, because I'd been brought up with the belief that the idea of performing animals was wrong. But in my ringside seat at the Great British Circus, and in my subsequent interviews with tiger trainer Martin Lacey and other animals trainers, I realised there was a much richer, deeper and more complex story to be told about the circus than I had originally realised.

Read more on the subject of animals in the circus in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus - the book the Mail on Sunday called "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form."

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon in paperback or ebook.

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