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."

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

May All Your Days Be Circus Days

There are some phrases that sound like they were never written, they've just been around forever. One of them is the traditional circus sign-off: "May all your days be circus days!" It sounds like a goodbye handed down through the centuries, but in fact it's a tradition that dates from just 1969.

The words were coined by Ringling Pr man Jack Ryan. Follow him on Facebook at May All Your Days Be Circus Days.

Oh and be sure to like Circus Mania on Facebook, too!

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Ringling Elephants and the Ankus - Is it time to let circuses off the hook?

Me and the Elephant
Circus Mania author Douglas McPherson
meets one of the last elephants to
appear in a British circus

The news that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is to phase out its iconic elephant parade has been hailed as a victory for the animal rights groups that have campaigned against them for decades.

But I think the battle has been won in the hearts and minds of legislators rather than the circus-going public, who continue to fill US arenas with audiences of several thousand per show, and who are apparently happy to watch other animals perform, including a lion and tiger act presented by Britain’s Alex Lacey.

As a spokesman for Ringling owners Feld Entertainment put it, “We looked across the legislative landscape and it’s become a patchwork quilt of unnecessary restrictions and prohibitions... we’re not in the business of fighting city hall.”

In short, Los Angeles and some other US cities have either banned or are considering banning the ankus, the traditional tool for guiding elephants. The ankus, also known as an elephant goad or bull-hook is a two or three-foot-long stick with a metal point and hook on one end and is the only means of controlling an elephant in what’s known as free contact management. That is, where elephant and handler are in an unenclosed space such as a street or circus ring. Not using an ankus would be the equivalent of walking a horse through a public space without a rein.

With the ankus outlawed, Ringling has the choice of leaving its elephants out of the show or taking its show out of the city. For an entertainment company that needs to be where the crowds are, that’s a simple decision.

But is banning the ankus justified?

Opponents see the bull-hook as an instrument of pain and punishment. Sadly, there is much video evidence of hooks being used in an abusive way. Fed a diet of such images by animal rights groups, it’s no wonder many legislators and members of the public believe that is the ankus’ only purpose.

Elephant handlers, however, maintain the ankus is a simple guiding tool which, when used correctly, is no more detrimental to an elephant than a horse rider’s crop or spurs, or the bit in a horse’s mouth.

When Anne the elephant was moved from a circus to Longleat safari park, animal rights groups were perturbed to see that her new handlers continued to use the ankus. The park’s director Dr Jonathan Cracknell defended the practise, stating it was “not a tool of domination... but more akin to that of a rope on a horse, used to guide her in the right direction and communicate what we need her to do.”

Zoo elephants have always been trained to facilitate washing, veterinary procedures and movement between enclosures. Traditionally, many have been taught circus tricks or used to give rides to the public, because the physical exercise and mental engagement is good for their health.

Without the ankus, for example, it would be impossible to take an elephant for a long walk in the countryside.

The Management Guidelines for The Welfare of Zoo Animals - Elephants, published by the British & Irish Association of Zoos & Aquariums (BIAZA) sets out how an ankus can be used in conjunction with positive reinforcement and the association with verbal commands to train elephants in a humane way.

For example, to get an elephant to move forward, the handler touches its back leg with the hook. When the elephant moves away from the hook, the action is rewarded with a treat (food) and verbal praise. With repetition, the action eventually becomes associated with a verbal command and the hook is only needed as an occasional prompt to guide direction.

To see the ankus used correctly, watch this video of Willie Thieson, the elephant manager of a zoo in Pittsburgh, showing TV news presenter Sally Wiggin how to use a hook to make an elephant lie down for a veterinary procedure. “The hook is not as sharp as it looks,” Wiggins observes, “and I barely had to touch her to get a response.”

Having interviewed several circus trainers for my book Circus Mania, I tend to believe that most treat their animals well. It’s also probably the case that most innovations in animal training grew from the uncommonly close relationship between circus trainers and their animals. The inventor of the modern circus, horseman Phillip Astley, for example, is said to have used clicker conditioning more than 200 years before it became the current buzzword for training pets.

That little is known about circus training is unsurprising - a magician doesn’t spoil his illusions with a banal explanation. But the secrecy of the circus community has fuelled the suspicion of cruelty. It’s human nature to distrust those who live differently from us and to apply sinister connotations to things we don’t understand.  

With anti-circus campaigners often seeming to have the only voice in the media, perhaps it’s time for circuses to swap mystique for openness, put more emphasis on education and show us how they work with their animals. In turn, perhaps legislators can focus on regulation, the raising of standards and the rooting out of bad apples, rather than taking the simplest option of a ban.

There’s no doubt a large part of the public still wants to see animals up close in a circus ring. Zippos operated an all-human show for ten years before introducing horses and dogs due to public demand. Giffords, the most gentrified circus in Britain, is built around the horse.

Some opponents of circuses with animals draw a distinction between domesticated and wild, forgetting that elephants and camels have been domesticated in their native regions for thousands of years. Besides, is there any difference between training a horse, an elephant or a lion, except in the sense that the circus’ biggest selling point has always been taking things to the extreme and showing us things we would not believe possible.

For more on the always thorny subject of animals in the circus read Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Britain's Best Dressed Clowns

There was a time when every circus had a whiteface clown. Now Mr Popol - alias Paul Carpenter - pictured above, standing, with his comic partner, the traditional auguste Kakehole, is the only one left in the UK. Catch the Popolinos in Circus Wonderland, a brand new take on the classic big top, at the Apps Court Farm, Walton-on-Thames from March 18-22, and sample clowning as it used to be. Call the box office for times and tickets: 07531 612240.

What is a whiteface clown? Or an auguste? For more on the history and techniques of clowning, including interviews with some of today's finest performers, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus. Click here to read the 5-star reviews on Amazon.

For more clowns, click here.

Friday, 6 March 2015

100 year battle over circus animals

Did you know the first calls to ban performing animals were made 100 years ago? In this article that originally appeared in The Stage last year, I untangle the history of opposition to animals in entertainment.

Animals have been entertaining us for as long as we’ve had professional entertainment. The word ‘circus’ dates from Roman arenas such as the Circus Maximus, where the spectacle ranged from chariot races to exhibitions of exotic breeds from across the empire. The circus as we know it was founded in London in 1768 by trick horse-rider Philip Astley, who augmented equestrian displays with clowns, acrobats and strongmen.

Animals were also part of music hall tradition. Jospeph Grimaldi, the early 19th century pantomime star regarded as the father of clowning, used a trained donkey called Neddy in his act.

The PG Tips chimps were among the most
popular TV stars of the 70s, but times change and the
long-running advertising campaign was eventually dropped.
Retired to a zoo, the chimps, including 42-year-old Choppers,
pictured here, were said to miss human interaction and
found it hard to integrate with other apes. Is that why
she looks so sad? Or does she just want a cuppa?
During the 20th century, animals were used in the film and television industries from the beginning, making stars of LassieSkippy the Bush Kangaroo and Flipper the dolphin.

Part of that tradition seemed destined to disappear when the government announced its plans to ban wild animals in circuses from December 2015. But that now looks unlikely to happen after the much anticipated Wild Animals in Circuses Bill failed to appear in the list of legislation to be brought before Parliament before the next election.

The campaign to outlaw performing animals is not new, however, and neither is the phenomenon of actors and other celebrities using their fame to endorse animal rights groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

The formation of the world’s oldest animal welfare organisation, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), in 1824, led to the Cruelty to Animals acts of 1835 and 1876. The latter was intended to regulate experiments on animals. But concern over the use of animals in science spread to questions about their treatment in entertainment and led to the Wild Animals in Captivity Protection Act, 1900.

Jack London
- Pulp novelist who called
for direct action against
circuses with animals
The Performing Animals Defence League was founded in 1914 to campaign against the use of performing animals. It was followed in 1918 by the Jack London Club. The latter was named after American pulp novelist Jack London who called for direct action against animal performances in the forward to his 1917 novel Michael, Brother of Jerry, which focused on alleged cruelty to animals in America. The Jack Londoners, as they were known, picketed circuses in the US and then Britain and Europe throughout the 1920s.

The first attempt at a government ban came in 1921, when Liberal MP Joseph Kenworthy introduced the Performing Animals Prohibition Bill. The bill was unsuccessful, but a select committee was set up to investigate the issue and led to the Performing Animals (Regulation) Act of 1925 which to this day requires that anyone who wishes to perform with an animal in public must possess a licence.

Calls for a ban continued and in 1927, the RSPCA wrote to the Times, asking “Will the public help to abolish this painful form of amusement by refraining from patronising exhibitions in which performing animals have a part?” The letter was signed by a list of public figures and celebrities including playwright George Bernard Shaw and the actress Sybil Thorndike.

Billy Smart's poster from
the heyday of animals in the circus
The 1950s were a boom time for circuses in Britain, and a period when animal acts by far outnumbered tightrope walkers and trapeze artists. The two biggest operators, Billy Smart’s and Chipperfields, filled their 5000-capacity big tops with hundreds of animals from tigers and polar bears to sea lions and giraffes.

Against that background, the Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS) was founded in 1957 to campaign and demonstrate against the use of animals in circuses and the exotic pet trade. In 1965, CAPS president Lord Somers sponsored a bill in the House of Lords to prohibit the use of performing animals. It was defeated by just 14 votes.

The 1970s saw the emergence of a new animal rights movement spearheaded by philosopher Pete Singer. Whereas previous campaigners had focused on animal welfare, the animal rights lobby sought to end the ownership of animals for entertainment, food, experimentation and products such as leather, by granting them equal rights to humans.

In 1984, husband and wife actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna founded the Born Free Foundation, named after the 1966 film Born Free, in which they had starred, to campaign against zoos and circuses.

Since the 1980s, around 200 local authorities have banned performing animals from council-owned show grounds. Circuses were forced to use private land in less accessible locations where animal rights activists often demonstrated at the gates. By the late 90s, most circuses had responded by dispensing with animals. The all-human Moscow State Circus and Chinese State Circus became the most successful big top shows in the UK, while Canada’s globally successful Cirque du Soleil, which had never featured animals, became the biggest producer in circus history.

An audience for animal acts remained, however. Zippos toured for ten years as an all-human circus but eventually introduced horses and dogs because of public demand. More recently, Ashleigh and Pudsey - a dancing dog - was a hit with the public on Britain’s Got Talent.

Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington's
report on circus animals
Click here for more.
In 1988, the RSPCA sponsored an 18-month study of circuses by Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington. The society refused to publish the results because she concluded circuses caused animals no distress and could have benefits for conservation, education and science. Kiley-Worthington subsequently published her report in the book Animals in Circuses and Zoos - Chiron’s World? (Aardvark Publishing). In Greek mythology, Chiron was half man, half horse and symbolises the relationship between humans and animals.

In 1999, undercover film made by Animal Defenders International (ADI) led to the conviction of Mary Chipperfield for cruelty to a chimpanzee at the Hampshire farm where she was training animals for film work.

Under pressure to ban circuses from using animals, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) set up the Circus Animals Working Group. The resulting report by Mike Radford, in 2007, concluded that circuses were as capable of meeting the needs of their animals as other captive environments such as zoos, and that there were no welfare reasons for a ban.

My report in The Stage on the Great British Circus
elephant controversy
Further undercover operations by ADI, however, resulted in film of elephants being hit at the Great British Circus in 2009 and a retired elephant, Anne, being beaten by a groom at the winter quarters of Bobby Roberts Super Circus in 2011. Roberts was given a conditional discharge for failing to prevent the groom in the video from abusing the elephant.

Following the large scale media outcry over Anne, animal welfare minister Lord Taylor announced in March 2012 that the government would ban wild animals in circuses from December 2015, with a new licensing and inspection scheme introduced in the interim. Only two companies, Peter Jolly’s Circus and Circus Mondao, applied for and were granted licenses, with shows such as Zippos unaffected since they use only domestic animals.

The Stage
- The issue this article
originally appeared in.
Animal rights groups such as CAPs criticised the government for delaying the legislation necessary to bring in the ban, and when it emerged in June this year that the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill won’t be debated before the next election, its future was put in doubt.

After a hundred years of controversy, however, calls for a ban are unlikely to go away, and Britain’s stance on the matter will be closely watched by animal trainers and animal rights groups around the world. Both sides believe a ban in Britain, where circus was invented, could create a domino effect in Europe and America. And with the film and television industries largely dependent on circuses for their trained animals, that could have implications for the future of all animals in entertainment.

The 100-Year Battle To Ban Performing Animals - Timeline

1914 - Performing Animals Defence League founded.

1921 - Joseph Kenworthy MP introduces unsuccessful Performing Animals Prohibition Bill.

1925 - Performing Animals (Regulation) Act introduces licenses for performing with animals in public.

1957 - Captive Animals Protection Society founded.

Born Free
The film about a lion that gave its name
to an animal rights group.
1984 - Zoo Check Campaign, later Born Free Foundation, founded by Born Free stars Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.

1980s - Many local councils ban circus animals from municipal show grounds.

1999 - Mary Chipperfield convicted of cruelty after undercover investigation by Animal Defenders International (ADI).

2000 - The Performing Animals Welfare Standards International (PAWSI) founded to promote animal welfare in audio-visual industries.

2006 Classical Circus Association founded to represent circuses with animals.

2007 - DEFRA-commissioned Radford Report finds no welfare grounds to ban animals in circuses.

2009 - ADI releases undercover film of elephants being hit at Great British Circus.

2009 - Bolivia becomes first country to ban all animals in circuses.

2011 - Media outcry over ADI film of Anne the elephant being beaten at winter quarters of Bobby Roberts Super Circus.

2012 - Animal welfare minister Lord Taylor announces ban on wild animals in circuses in 2015 and Circus Licensing Scheme in interim.

2013 - Peter Jolly’s Circus and Circus Mondao become only two UK circuses licensed to use wild animals.

2014 - With the Government's proposed ban on hold until after next year’s general election, Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick introduced a private member's bill under the 10-minute rule on September 3. It was blocked for the 12th time on March 6, 2015.

2017 - In the USA, America's oldest circus, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey withdraws its elephants in the face of restrictive legislation in key markets such as Los Angeles. The show closes for good soon after, when ticket sales drop as a result.

2018 - Wild animals are banned from travelling shows in Scotland. In England, DEFRA confirms plans to let the temporary licensing scheme expire in 2020, bringing in a ban on wild animals in the big top by default. In the meantime, Thomas Chipperfield is denied a licence to tour with his big cats but as of April 2018 is planning an appeal against the decision.

For more on the ever-thorny subject of animals in the circus, including a behind-the-scenes visit to Circus Mondao, one of only two British circuses licensed to use wild animals, read Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson. "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form," - Mail on Sunday.

Click here to buy Circus Mania from Amazon

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Happy 70th Birthday Gerry Cottle!

Here's wishing Britain's best-known circus man, Gerry Cottle a happy 70th birthday. His real birthday's April 7, but to avoid the Easter break, he's having his official birthday party this Saturday March 7 at the famous Wookey Hole in Somerset.

Gerry Cottle (left) with author Douglas McPherson
and Dr Haze from the Circus of Horrors
at the launch of Circus Mania
Click here to read the Gerry Cottle Story.

BBC Radio Wales Circus Animals Debate on Jason Mohammad show

Man and beast in harmony
Further to my piece on the Huffington Post this week, it was nice to be invited onto BBC Radio Wales this morning to debate the issue of animals in the circus with Fleur Dawes of Animal Defenders International. Jason Mohammad was the referee and you can click here to listen to the programme for the next seven days. It's the March 4 programme and my bit starts about 36:30.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Circus photo of the month - Mr Fips Wonder Circus

Captivated audience at Mr Fips Wonder Circus

Most circus photos focus on the performers - in action in the ring, or backstage where dazzling costumes contrast with mundane caravans, ropes and lorries. But how many photographers turn their cameras towards the audience?

That's what Mary Turner did at Mr Fips' Wonder Circus, and captured this arresting image of circus-goes looking up - literally agape with amazement. Unseen, wire-walker Marco Polo was balancing on a chair on the high-wire. But surely the reaction in those upturned faces - the unconscious expression of awe - captures the spellbinding magic of the circus more completely than a mere photograph of the spectacle they're beholding.

And look at the age range, from children on laps to teenagers, parents and grandparents - all entranced, transported and amazed. How many other art forms could enthral such a diverse audience?

Click here to see a full spread of Mary Turner's photos in the Daily Mail.

And click here for more on Mr Fips Wonder Circus.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Publisher Peter Owen celebrates 88th birthday

Many happy returns to Peter Owen OBE, founder of Peter Owen Publishers, the longest-established London publisher that still bears the name of its founder.

Owen celebrated his 88th birthday at famed Soho eaterie the Gay Hussar where he is seen here being toasted by his daughter and editorial director Antonia Owen.

Described by the Guardian as "a byword for literary adventure and experimentation," Peter Owen Publishers is home to authors including Salvador Dali, Edith Piaf, the Marquis de Sade and... Douglas McPherson, author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus.

For more on Peter Owen click here.

Circus animals - 10 Reasons why the show must go on

Click here to read my blog on the Huffington Post.

Yasmine Smart hosts Netherlands National Circus in Swindon

Circus Royalty: Yasmin Smart

The 'Circus Princess' Yasmin Smart is will be bringing glamour and tradition as ringmistress when the Netherlands National Circus pitches its big top in Swindon (opposite the Oasis Centre) from 3 - 8 March.

Alex the Fireman
Also on a packed all-human bill of flying trapeze, tightrope-walking and illusions will be possibly Britain's most acrobatic clown, Alex the Fireman, who combines trapeze skills with slapstick.

And there will be more knockabout fun from Team Fonz - a trampoline tribute to Happy Days!

From Swindon, the show moves to Swansea (Recreation Ground, Mumbles Road, 10-15 March) and Reading (Hills Meadow, 17-22 March).

Tickets and times: 0113 260 2444.

What's life like for those who run away with the circus, and those who were born into the never-aging tradition? Read all about clowns, showmen, trapeze artists, sword-swallowers and tiger trainers in Circus Mania by Douglas McPherson. Click here to buy on Amazon.