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)


  1. My thanks to Astley's Legacy (a blog dedicated to countering animal rights group propaganda) for pointing out Martin Freeman's hypocrisy in criticising the use of trained animals in entertainment:

    "Freeman should be well aware of PETA's infamy due to his involvement with Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" trilogy. Freeman played Bilbo Baggins, the star of the films. The film was targeted by PETA to the extent that Peter Jackson, himself, hit out at the Animal Rights group. Selective short-term memory loss or blatant hypocrisy? Freeman has worked in several projects that have involved trained animals (exotic and domestic). "Sherlock" is only one example (hint: check out "The Hounds of the Baskervilles" EP2 of S2)..."

    The Baskervilles, Watson! Remember them?

  2. With regard to my comparison of the number of circus trainers and the number of pet owners and farmers convicted of animal welfare offences, there were a total of 1029 UK convictions in 2014 and 1371 in 2013, mostly involving domestic pets. There have been two major convictions of farmers this year, one of them described by the judge as "one of the worst cases in Northern Ireland." Farmers Weekly, the industry newspaper, announced that convictions of farmers rose by 122% in 2012. So far, none of these prosecutions have caused the government to call for a ban on pet ownership or the meat trade. By contrast, there have been two convictions of circus trainers in the past 20 years (the first while the person was actually training animals for film work rather than circus). Both convictions resulted in mass media coverage and led the respective governments to promise a ban. Fair?

  3. Cruelty isn't just about physical abuse. Thomas Chipperfield’s licence application to tour in England was refused by DEFRA as the indoor enclosure measures just 33 sq mts and the minimum, that's minimum, not optimum, is 60 sq mts. This 33 sq mts is divided between 5 BIG cats. They also claimed that the cats have access to the outdoor enclosure for a lot more than the 3.5 hours a day they actually get. They were told to make the necessary changes before their application would be considered. It's all there in black & white on the government website yet Chipperfield is telling customers that this information, released by ADI, is all lies and they withdrew their application because they weren't touring in England as the one show they had planned was cancelled due to pressure from animal rights activists. They had every intention of touring England as it is on their licence application, they haven't put in a new application because they are unable to provide the changes required by DEFRA. They are currently asking the public to fund the improvements needed to give these animals larger cages which are currently just over half the size they should be. As far as I'm concerned confining animals in grossly inadequate housing is animal cruelty.

    1. Thomas Chipperfield toured England with Peter Jolly's Circus throughout 2014 and part of 2013 with the same animal accommodation he has now. At the time, the accommodation met DEFRA licensing requirements but the rules have since changed.

    2. I will verify your response with Defra. It doesn't alter the fact that the license application stated that the cats get 10 hours access to the outside enclosure when records show they get 3.5. The indoor space is, and will remain for some time, woefully inadequate.

    3. The guidance published by DEFRA in 2012 clearly states that each animal must have 12 sq mts, for each additional animal there must be an additional 12 sq mts. This applies to the indoor enclosure. So no, the rules have not changed. Your guess is as good as mine why previous Defra inspections failed to notice that Thomas Chipperfield was not complying with the required standard. However the responsibility is with him to provide the minimum standard and he isn't and hasn't been for some time. This is not an animal rights issue, it's an animal welfare issue.

    4. According to a statement by An Evening With Lions and Tigers:

      "During our most recent DEFRA inspection they did not fail us but did give some advisories. The enclosure is in 2 parts. An indoor sleeping area and an outdoor exercise area filled with toys , logs, branches a pool and platforms. This outdoor area is more than double what is required by DEFRA. They now say, despite passing us 5 times, more of the space needs to be indoors. The overall space for the animals far exceeds what is required. But Before we tour England next year, we will have to turn some of the outdoor space into indoor space. We have not been asked to add any extra space, just alter the current space , and our licence application was withdrawn as it was not needed. Our only show to be held in England this year was cancelled by the organisers. We do plan to tour England next year but will we follow these advisories from DEFRA? No, we won't. Because last year we started plans on brand new state of the art enclosures that will double the indoor and outdoor space. This will mean our outdoor space will be 4 times the size needed and the indoor space will also be bigger. The Tigers will also get a brand new pool to play in. You can help raise funds for our brand new enclosure via our go fund me page."

  4. And osteoarthritis is only found in captive wild animals, not in those free to live as nature intended. I believe there are concerns regarding Nadia and this condition.

    1. Not being a vet, I can only guess here that osteoarthritis is an age-related condition (I believe it is in dogs) and that captive animals, including pets, would be prone to age-related ailments simply by virtue of living a lot longer than their wild cousins. Nadia is 18-years-old, an unlikely age for a wild tiger and an age at which a domestic cat would probably be feeling its age. I can't say if Nadia has any age-related health problems, but Thomas told me in a previous interview that he'd taken some of her tricks out of the show because of her age but he kept her in the show because she enjoyed doing what she could. I once heard from another trainer, Martin Lacey Sr, that older cats stay in the show as "seat warmers," which is to say they don't do much except sit on a pedestal, but they don't like to be left out. When the other cats go into the ring, they try to follow, because that's the life they're used to. That may sound strange to anyone who believes circus animals only perform under duress but from my observation of big cats appearing to enjoy interacting with their trainers, I can only imagine it would be like an old pet dog no longer being allowed to go to the park with a family's younger pets.
      Back in December, Martin's son Alex Lacey, who works on the Ringling Brothers show in America retired two tigers he'd worked with for 19 years and wrote on his Facebook page: "Tara and India will stay with me and live along side their offspring and the other cats that they have have formed family groups with. They will continue to be included in morning practice sessions and keep the next lot of youngsters "in line" that are currently being trained. They will stay with me and receive the very best veterinary care available from Ringlings veterinary team. The best possible diet and the best possible team of animal carers."

  5. The outdoor area is double the requirement for a single cat, a single cat requires 50 sq mts, any additional cat needs 25 sq mts per cat. As Defra have stated the cats should have 10hrs a day in the outdoor enclosure so they need at least what they have now. Even then that puts 3 cats outdoors for 10 hours then 2 cats outdoors for 10 hours, 20 hours out of the day, not really feasible. So there statement that the outdoor enclosure is double the requirement is a bit puzzling.

  6. And the documents are available on line, the inspection report is quite clear, they are refused a licence until the changes are made, then the application will be reconsidered. I'd recommend you read it for yourself.

  7. DEFRA's Guidence on the Welfare of Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (England) Regulations 2012 can be read online here:

    1. Also online, here is a copy of a DEFRA Inspection Report of Peter Jolly's Circus on 9 October 2014. Section 3, on the environment the animals are kept in, specifically asks "Are areas of suitable size," and the inspector records no issues with the big cat wagon or its outside pen; nor indeed with the accommodation of any of the other animal. The circus, including the big cat accommodation, passed the inspection without any problems. That was the last of several inspections during 2014 and Thomas Chipperfield is still travelling with the same accommodation. So it does seem odd that DEFRA had no issues with the big cat accommodation in 2014 but does in 2015. The only difference I can see is that in 2014, he was travelling under a licence held by Peter Jolly's Circus and this year would have applied for a new licence under his own name.
      Here's the link to the inspection report:

    2. Having read the pre-licensing inspection report for Thomas' application, and subsequent correspondence between him and DEFRA, it appears that the same inspector who found his accommodation wanting this year, approved it on Jolly's in early 2014. So curiouser and curiouser. It also seems that the guidance measurements are just that: for guidance rather than mandatory; the recommendation to licence rests with the inspector.
      Whatever the twists in the red tape, however, the upshot is that Thomas is committed to doubling the size of both the indoor and outdoor accommodation, which will far surpass DEFRA's requirements. So good news for the animals, and for the fans who will hopefully see the show licensed and on the road in England next year.