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.