Robert Carlyle and Rhys Ifans are the latest celebrities to call for a ban on wild animals in the circus, with Carlyle writing to the Scottish government on behalf of PETA and Ifans campaigning in Wales for Animal Defenders International. I was brought up to believe it was wrong for animals to perform in circuses, so I understand why many people harbour that instinctive belief. But reading the comments in the press by the aforementioned actors - Carlyle used the words "obscene," "demeaning" and "painful," - I have to wonder whether either has first-hand experience of how circuses care for their animals. Having investigated the matter in great depth for my book, Circus Mania, I changed my mind and would like to present 10 reasons why the show - with animals - should go on.
1/ The Radford Report found no grounds for a ban. In 2006, the last Labour government commissioned a six-month study of circus animals, with full participation by circuses and anti-circus campaigners, and concluded that circuses were as capable as other captive environments, such as zoos, of meeting the welfare needs of the animals in their care.
2/ An earlier study by animal behavourist Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington found circus animals suffer no stress during performance, training or transportation. The 18-month study, 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.
3/ Circuses with wild animals are strictly regulated by a licensing scheme, introduced in 2012, 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. Plus, every circus, including animal accommodation, is on continual show to the public.
4/ Circuses aid conservation through breeding programmes and by raising awareness. It was largely the tricks performed by dolphins in aquariums that convinced the public they were intelligent and worth saving. Animals in the wild are endangered by human predators and shrinking habitats, and live short, dangerous lives. Circus animals receive food, shelter and veterinary care. They live twice as long as their cousins in the wild.
5/ Circus animals lead rewarding lives. Every cat and dog owner knows their pet enjoys playing with humans, and it’s no different for a horse or a lion. Training and performance are organised play, like throwing a stick for a dog or pulling string in front of a cat. Zoos stopped animal performances to distance themselves from circuses, but have reintroduced them because animals benefit from the stimulation. These days they call it ‘enrichment.’
6/ Children are enthralled by circus animals. It’s the only form of entertainment where the under-fives are guaranteed to enjoy themselves as much as their grandparents, making it a cheap day out for all the family. Seeing the skill and intelligence of animals at close quarters can only foster admiration and respect for other species. Even adults will seldom get as close to wild animals as they do in a big top. expectancy
7/ It’s what the public want to see. Unlike most contemporary all-human circus shows, traditional circuses with animals receive no public funding and survive entirely on ticket sales. I’m not sure who was surveyed in the oft-mentioned ‘public consultation’ that found 98% of respondents supported a ban, but it wasn’t circus-goers. The consultation was held during the year I was writing Circus Mania and regularly attending circuses, but I never heard about it. Perhaps it was only publicised by animal rights organisations to their existing supporters?
8/ No other profession is judged by the actions of individuals. There have been 7 prosecutions of circus trainers in 130 years; a tiny minority of the trainers who worked blamelessly in that time. Banning circus animals as a knee-jerk reaction to the case of Anne the elephant would be as ridiculous as banning children’s television presenters because of Jimmy Savile. We have existing laws to deal with individual cases of cruelty.
9/ A ban on circus animals would be the thin end of the wedge because animal rights campaigners have a wider philosophical agenda than animal welfare. The next targets would be zoos and aquariums, horseracing, meat consumption, wool, silk and leather-wearing, medical research and pet ownership. The slogan of the world’s largest animal rights organisation PETA is “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.”
10/ The circus is a 250-year-old art form that Britain gave to the world. It was started in London by horse-rider Philip Astley, and although the global success of Cirque du Soleil proves circus can flourish without animals, surely there should be room in the land of its creation for a few well-run and regulated shows that keep alive the entertainment in its most pure form, with a mixture of human and animal acts. Surely that's something that entertainers such as Robert Carlyle and Rhys Ifans should respect.
Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away with the Circus (Peter Owen Publishers)