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."

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