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, 28 September 2015

Why Sherlock's Dr Watson Martin Freeman is wrong about circus animals

Martin Freeman
No s***, Sherlock

Martin Freeman, who plays Dr Watson in TV’s Sherlock, is the latest celebrity to join forces with PETA in calling for a ban on circus animals. In a letter to prime minister David Cameron, he said, “I’d like to see my children grow up in a country where animals are treated with respect, not as objects of ridicule.” The actor, who is also known for his role as Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit films added that “allowing circuses with wild animals to continue sends the message that it’s okay to dominate animals and ignore pain and suffering.”

As someone who was brought up to believe that the idea of performing animals was wrong, I can understand why Freeman might harbour that instinctive belief. But I have to wonder whether he has witnessed any “ridicule,” “pain” or “suffering” first hand. Because when I looked into the matter in great depth for my book, Circus Mania, I found myself forming a very different view of the unique relationship between trainer and animal and the benefits that watching such interaction can offer audiences and society as a whole.

I expect Sherlock Holmes would advise his sidekick to consider all the evidence before jumping to conclusions. So, for the benefit of Dr Watson, here are my reasons why I believe the show, with animals, should go on.

The Radford Report, commissioned by the last Labour government found no grounds for a ban. Although Labour wanted to introduce a ban, their six-month study, found only the inconvenient truth that circuses were as capable as other captive environments, such as zoos, of meeting the welfare needs of the animals in their care.

An earlier 18-month study by animal behavourist Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington found circus animals suffer no stress during performance, training or transportation. Kiley-Worthington found circus training methods to be no harsher than those in riding stables, kennels or other animal husbandry environments, and noted that while farm animals find transportation stressful, circus animals quickly become acclimatised to it and enter their transport without concern. Her report, which was sponsored by the RSPCA and published as Animals in Circuses and Zoos: Chiron’s World? also pointed out ways in which the relationship between animals and trainers could contribute to our scientific understanding of how animals think, learn and perceive the world.

Historically, just 7 UK circus trainers have been prosecuted for cruelty in 130 years - a tiny minority of the trainers who worked blamelessly in that time, and a tiny number compared with the number of livestock farmers and pet owners brought before the courts. Malpractice exists in every profession, but the solution is to ban the bad practitioner, not the profession as a whole.

Regulation is better than prohibition, and since 2012, UK circuses with wild animals have been strictly regulated by a licensing scheme that sees them inspected by vets six times a year (twice unannounced) with the results available online. Every aspect of the animal’s life, diet and accommodation is governed by strict guidelines. There is little room left for wrongdoing, and should it occur, we have existing laws to deal with it.

Mr Freeman doesn’t want his children to see animals ridiculed, but that’s not my experience of what you’ll see in a circus ring. Typically, animals are encouraged - not forced - to display perfectly natural behaviour, such as jumping and rolling over.

The children I’ve seen at ringside were enthralled by the animals they saw, and witnessing their obvious skill and intelligence at close quarters can only foster respect for other species, just as it was largely the tricks performed by trained dolphins that convinced the public that they were intelligent and therefore worthy of conservation.

The animals that I’ve seen in the circus, meanwhile, showed every sign of enjoying the interaction with their trainers. Every cat, dog and horse owner knows their pet enjoys playing with humans, and it’s no different for a zebra, camel or lion. Training and performance are organised play, like throwing a stick for a dog or pulling string in front of a cat. To see how that works in practise, click here to watch Thomas Chipperfield’s video diary in which Britain’s last lion tamer demonstrates how he trained two young lions with patience and reward.

For some people, of course, the issue is simply that animals should be free. But we shouldn’t anthropomorphise and assume that a captive-bred animal is intellectually capable of sharing our concept of freedom - or assume that it is any worse off than its wild-born cousin.

Animals in the wild are endangered by predators (including human predators) and shrinking habitats. They live short, dangerous lives. Circus animals receive food, shelter and veterinary care, and as a result live twice as long. One of Thomas Chipperfield’s tigers, for example, is 18-years-old. In the wild she would have died long ago, either from wounds or disease, or from starvation when she reached an age where she could no longer fend for herself. In captivity, she enjoys a healthy and pampered old age.

Do I think she’s happy? Elementary, my dear Watson.

January 2016 update: for more on the double standards of actors including Brian Blessed and Roger Moore who have campaigned against the circus while working with circus animals on stage and screen, click here to read my article in The Stage.

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus (Peter Owen Publishers)

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Chipperfield lions pictures

Here are the latest pictures from An Evening With Lions and Tigers, courtesy of the South Wales Evening Post. View the complete gallery here.

The show, presented by Britain's last lion trainer Thomas Chipperfield, is in Neath, Wales, until October 4. For details of how to get involved in the show, click here.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Crowd fund a circus lion

Buy a lion a new home at

Crowd funding has been a trend in the music business for a while now. Instead of needing a record company to cover the cost of making an album then recouping the investment through record sales, increasing numbers of independent artists are going direct to their fans, through websites such as Kickstarter and PledgeMusic, and asking them to donate small and large amounts of money to pay for the recording process in advance.

Thomas Chipperfield
wants to double the size of his big cat accomodation
Depending how much they pledge, fans are rewarded with various packages, from a signed copy of the album to things like an invitation to the launch party, having their name on the CD sleeve, or even a private concert in your living room!

A big part of the reward for donating, of course, is the sense of involvement and the satisfaction of helping an artist you believe in bring their music to the world.

But can you crowd fund a circus?

Anthony Beckwith, Thomas Chipperfield’s partner in An Evening With Lions And Tigers has set up a Go Fund Me page to raise capital for a new, enlarged living and exercise space for the show’s big cats for a planned tour of England next year.

The company, which is currently touring Wales, needs £15,000 to double the size of the indoor and outdoor accommodation currently shared by the show’s two lions and three tigers. The new outdoor space will be four times the size required by the DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) licence that An Evening With Lions and Tigers needs to tour in England, and the indoor overnight accommodation will also be bigger.

Work on the new enclosures is under way
but your help is needed to complete the project 
It will also show Chipperfield’s commitment to providing the best possible care for his animals while his show itself is designed to educate the public about the humane ways in which big cats are trained for circus and film work.

According to Beckwith: “I've spent the last decade of my life working in British circuses, as I feel that they are the best medium through which to educate the public about wild animals. The bond between man and beast cannot be presented better than through live presentations.”

At a time when lions and tigers have disappeared from every other British circus, and only a few have even horses, dogs and exotics such as zebra and camels, Beckwith and Chipperfield are the only two showmen fighting back against the efforts of animal rights groups to force through Parliament a ban on all animals in the big top.

Cover stars
Thomas Chipperfield and Tsavo the lion
grace the Daily Telegraph
The Go Fund Me page offers a chance for fans of traditional circus to not just support Anthony and Thomas in their current fundraising project, but to demonstrate public support for a British tradition under threat. If you want lions in your circuses, you can literally put your money where your mouth is by pledging support here.

The anti-circus brigade have, after all, been asking the public for donations for years. Why shouldn’t circuses fight back with the same tactics?

So far, there is no suggestion of music business-style rewards for crowd funders. But maybe that’s something Beckwith should consider. How about a pair of free tickets and an “I bought a lion a new home" T-shirt for a minimum donation of say £25? And for those who wish to pledge £100 or £200, your name in the souvenir brochure, or engraved in a plaque on the side of the exercise enclosure? Maybe £1000 should get you a tiger cub named in your honour. And for anyone who stumps up the full £15,000, how about a personal appearance from Tsavo the lion in your own living roo... oh, er, well maybe not.

Apart from that, could crowd funding be the new way of supporting your favourite circus?

An Evening with Lions and Tigers is in Swansea (just off Junc 45 of the m4) October 12 to October 25. Bookings: 07821155513.

Douglas McPherson is the author Circus Mania, the Ultimate Book for Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With The Circus.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Book Review: The Enemy Within by Gary Nott - a circus adventure with a 70s twist.

Do you remember the Bay City Rollers, Look-In magazine and the Six Million Dollar Man?

Gary Nott’s circus adventure The Enemy Within is about a gang of ten, eleven and twelve-year-olds who turn detective in true kids’ fiction tradition. But while it’s clearly aimed at children in that age group, I reckon it will appeal just as much, if not more so, to those of us adults who were that age in 1975, the year the novel is set.

Within the first couple of pages, mentions of Henry Cooper splashing it all over in the Brut cologne adverts, and the Disney film One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing ticked all the nostalgia boxes for me. Yep, I saw that film and, just like the book’s heroes, went to a Wimpy bar afterwards.

Add dancing to Tiger Feet by Mud at the school disco and I was right back there.

Nott’s love for and knowledge of the circus shines from every page as he describes a big top arriving in Torquay for an extended summer season. The circus kids are dumped at the local school for the last few weeks of term where they feel like the outsiders they are. But they quickly make friends with four town kids led by Pete who hopes circus girl Natalie will be his first girlfriend.

But then things start to go wrong at the big top, and the animal rights protestors at the gates are the least of the circus’ problems. With aerialists plummeting from sabotaged ropes and animals set loose, the story is packed with incident.

One of the funniest scenes sees a family of four hiding in a phone box after seeing an escaped bear. “Find somewhere to hide,” they urge the kids who are looking for the bear, “and before you ask, there’s no room in here!”

There are no shortage of suspects for the kids to snoop on, either, from the grumpy clown with a grudge to the shifty elephant groom and the tiger trainer with debts.

I have to admit I guessed the villain early on, but that didn’t stop me enjoying the book tremendously, including the denouement with its nod to Scooby Doo’s classic payoff (and another nostalgic titbit for us grown-ups), “I’d have got away with it if it wasn’t for these pesky kids!”

I also enjoyed Nott’s even-handed treatment of the always thorny issue of animals in the circus, which is a central theme.

Pete is uncomfortable with the sight of the elephant trainer’s bullhook and the confined living spaces in the ‘zoo,’ but notes the lions have more space than the workers in the bunk wagon. He’s somewhat won over by the obvious love that the cat trainers have for their animals. But then he’s shocked by the Russian bear trainers’ rough treatment of their animals - and the way the circus kids accept it.

“The Popov Brothers are rough with their animals,” Yolanda admits. “Not all trainers are kind.”

“Does the gaffer know?”

“Yes, but the brothers are cheap to hire.”

In the event, the circus owner is persuaded to confront the bear keepers, but only under threat of more bad publicity his show can ill-afford. It’s a hollow victory for Pete, meanwhile, because the brothers leave and take their animals to another circus.

“Who’ll look out for them now?” he wonders.

Elsewhere, 12-year-old lion trainer’s son Timmy is resistant to the idea of providing an exercise enclosure when the cats sleep most of the day anyway: Putting up an exercise cage would mean effort and money - you’d have to buy a second cage and then spend time putting it up; he didn’t think it was practical at all.

“We know how to take care of our animals. We don’t need outsiders to tell us how to improve things,” he says, making clear the circus kids’ friendship with the town kids has limits.

Tumblers’ daughter Natalie, meanwhile, keeps her doubts about the animals to herself, knowing that to voice them would mark her as a traitor within a community under attack.

Seamlessly entwined in a children's adventure story, this is a brilliantly judged commentary on a complicated subject. Not anti-circus, or even anti-animals in circus, but precisely pinpointing the grey areas in a subject usually viewed in black and white, I frequently found Pete's reactions to the circus mirroring my own.

Buy it for your kids. Read it for yourself.

The Enemy Within by Gary Nott is published by Vanguard Press and available from Amazon.

For more circus fiction try The Showman's Girl by Julia Douglas - elephants, adventure and romance in the big top in the 1930s. Click here to read a preview.