|Can you tell the difference between|
these two circus performers?
Read on to see how animal rights groups like to blur it.
After Andrew Rosindell blocked Jim Fitzpatrick’s attempt to get a second reading for his Circus Animals Bill last week, I looked up a YouTube clip of the former shadow minister for Animal Welfare addressing the Commons about the issue on a previous occasion.
From the constant barracking, jeering, laughter and attempted interruptions (par for the course in the Commons, of course) it was clear that no one wanted to hear what sounded like a perfectly reasonable argument by Rosindell in defence of the big top.
His view was that the Government should base its decisions on facts rather than emotions and opinion polls; that he had personally investigated circuses rather than being blindly guided by anti-circus campaigners, and found the animals to be well cared for. He added that we have existing laws to deal with individual cases of cruelty, and that it would be more cruel to take circus animals out of the environment where they had been bred than to leave them in a situation they were accustomed to.
That last point prompted another MP to ask whether Rosindell believed third generation African-American slaves were more comfortable with their slavery because they’d been born into it?
The questioner smugly thought he’d played a trump card and so, it seemed, did most of the House.
But in fact, the questioner had pinpointed an issue that he probably wasn’t even aware of, and which is this:
Slaves were people.
Circus animals are animals.
To regard them in the same way is to cross the line between ‘animal welfare’ and ‘animal rights.’
The difference is important, but generally overlooked in the circus animals debate.
Animal rights organisations such as Peta - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - believe animals should have similar or the same rights as humans, i.e. that they shouldn’t be eaten, owned or otherwise exploited. That’s fair enough. But is it a philosophy shared by the 94.5% of people that such groups generally claim oppose the use of animals in the circus?
I would say most people in the civilised world are opposed to cruelty to animals. But I reckon the vast majority consider humans and animals to have very different ‘rights.’ Most of us have no objection to eating meat, wearing clothes made from animal products or owning pets.
Most of us can see the difference between eating an animal and being cruel to it - or owning a pet and being cruel to it. We will happily support laws that prevent farmers being cruel to their livestock, but would we so ready support a law that gives cattle the right not to be eaten?
We’re constantly told by campaigners that the use of animals in the circus is wrong. But is it wrong from an animal welfare point of view - i.e. that the animals are cruelly treated or institutionally suffer in the circus environment? Or is it wrong from an animal rights point of view - i.e. that the animals have the right not to be kept in captivity, trained and exploited for entertainment?
If you believe animals should have the right not to be owned and exploited, go ahead and support a ban on circus animals on ethical grounds. Just be sure that you are committed to not eating meat, buying animal products, riding horses or owning pet cats and dogs - because banning all those things is the next logical step on the grounds that they would all infringe the rights of the animals concerned.
If, on the other hand, you’re happy to eat meat and own a pet, be 100% sure that there are grounds to ban circus animals for reasons of welfare. A scientific study headed by Mike Radford for DEFRA in 2007 concluded that circuses were no less able to meet the welfare needs of their animals than other captive environments such as zoos, while the 2012 prosecution of Bobby Roberts and 1999 conviction of Mary Chipperfield proved we have existing laws to deal with individual cases of cruelty within the circus industry, just as we have laws to deal with cruelty by livestock owners without needing to ban the meat trade.
If you are unsure about the welfare of circus animals, I suggest you do what Rosindell did - and what I did while researching my book, Circus Mania - visit a circus, inspect the living conditions and meet the trainers before you make up your mind.
The most important thing, though, is to be clear whether you support a ban on the grounds of animal welfare or animal rights.
Anti-circus campaigners generally blur the distinction because they know nearly everyone supports animal welfare while very few share their view of animal rights.
Understanding the difference means you can be an animal lover and still love the circus.
And what about the positives...
All of the above, of course, looks at the issue from a negative perspective - suggesting that the welfare of circus animals be judged by the absence of cruelty or suffering. But should we actually be talking about the positive aspects of training animals?
Could circus animals benefit from interacting with their trainers? Every dog and cat owner knows that pets enjoy playing with their human companions. Chasing some string or fetching a stick is stimulating and makes them happy. The owner is also enriched by the relationship - the love for a pet and the sense of bereavement when one dies can be as intense as any human relationship. So why should it be any different for a lion and its trainer?
Audiences, and particularly young children, surely also benefit from seeing well-trained circus animals up close. Apart from seeing the animals themselves, seeing the degree to which an animal can think and learn must surely encourage respect for other species.
In wishing to completely segregate animals and humans, and illegalise the relationship between them, it strikes me that animal rights activists have a very different agenda to the animal lovers they appeal to for donations. They seem to me to be more like animal haters.
I understand why people often harbour an instinctive belief that keeping animals in circuses is cruel or distasteful. I was brought up with that belief. When I began writing a book about the circus, it was the daredevilry of the human performers that I wanted to celebrate. I quickly realised, however, that I would have to visit some of the last remaining circuses with animals because that was where I could get a glimpse into the history of the art form. I went along as a sceptic. Indeed, I went looking for signs of cruelty. But I was determined, too, to speak to the trainers and find out the truth. You can read about my journey behind the scenes in Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.
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