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."

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Animal welfare or animal rights - the big difference

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.
Click here to read the reviews on Amazon.


  1. You make some very important points, among them, that owning pets of any sort would also constitute a form of animal cruelty, if we are to believe the "animal rights" crowd. After all, should any dog or cat not be totally free to wander off wherever it wishes to go, even to “move away” as humans do, rather than be confined to a leash and domestic enclosure?

    There, of course, have been documented incidents of the mistreatment of circus animals, and these filmed incidents understandably upset people. But on balance, I think the public needs to also consider wide-spread evidence of how circus animals can and, in fact, are humanely treated in other, more enlightened quarters, such as vividly apparent in the instructive Thomas Chipperfield lion training videos.

    I hope that in the land, yours, where the circus was invented, circus animals will one day be fully welcomed back under the big tops, before crowds sufficiently satisfied that what they are witnessing represents a life-affirming interplay between man and beast. More and more, through the objective scrutiny of how circuses handle, train and present their animals; through increased scientific understanding of animal behavior; and through improved training techniques visible to all, I can only hope that the doubters and critics will come to perceive not subjugation, but cooperation

    1. I think the circus industry needs to go on the attack a bit in accentuating the positive - offering the public the opportunity to watch training sessions, or encouraging school visits to see the training; public relations exercises of that kind. And, of course, using that kind of thing to generate positive media coverage.
      I've just heard a rumour about a show next year featuring animals and a very big name from the past. If it goes ahead, maybe the educational angle is something they could build in from the beginning.