Telling it like it is?
Animal rights groups will tell you that circus animals are beaten into submission and forced to perform through fear. It’s easy to believe if you never go to a circus with animals, which is why campaigns to “stop circus suffering” generate such a big income from armchair animal lovers (the combined income of UK organisations including Peta, ADI, CAPS and Born Free is over £350 million per annum).
Circus trainers will tell you they love their animals like their children and train them with a system of rewards and kindness that enriches the animals’ lives. That makes sense, because lots of other animals are trained, from guide dogs and riding horses to household pets - and nobody assumes they are cruelly treated.
But then there are those covertly shot videos of behind-the-scenes abuse that periodically show up in the news and live forever on YouTube to nag at the conscience of even the most ardent circus fan.
The latest star of such a video is Michael Hackenberger who trains big cats in a circus ring at Bowmanville Zoological Park in Ontario. Just before Christmas, Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) released a video of Hakenberger appearing to whip a tiger twenty times during a training session.
Hackenberger, who owned the tiger used in the film Life of Pi, thought he was in the presence of a woman interested in animal training, but didn’t know she was secretly filming him. The video shows him telling her that it’s more effective to hit a tiger’s foot while it’s on its pedestal, because being trapped “like a vice” between the whip and the hard surface “it stings more.”
Clearly an abuser caught bang to rights, you might think.
Except that Hackenberger is the first trainer filmed in such circumstances to reply with a video of his own explaining how his actions have been taken out of context. View it here.
First, he shows us that far from whipping the tiger twenty times, he was actually whipping the air near the animal to make a lot of noise without touching it. His purpose wasn’t to hurt it, but to show his displeasure at it jumping onto the ring kerb which, during a performance, would be dangerous.
He demonstrates with the same tiger, which shows no fear of the whip, and points out that if he’d actually been beating it, its natural reaction would be to try and kill him.
Next, he explains that in another segment from the Peta video he hit the tiger’s paw, but only to stop it taking a swipe at his assistant.
Discipline is part of any training regime and, given an animal’s short attention span, has to be administered at the moment of bad behaviour - just as rewards are given at the moment of good behaviour.
It’s the animal equivalent of smacking a child to stop it running into the road. Witnessed in isolation the wallop may make you wince, and if a celebrity were filmed hitting their offspring it might cause a media storm. But, in the real world, it doesn’t mean the parent is generally abusive or that the child won’t be all smiles again five minutes later.
Some people will question why Hackenberger needs to assert his authority over a wild animal. His answer is that in a world of shrinking habitats, captivity is a necessary option. Boredom and obesity are the biggest problems for zoo animals, whereas training gives them exercise and stimulation.
Hackenberger’s anger at the Peta video isn’t with the two minutes of his training session that it shows, but the 90 minutes that it doesn’t show.
“If there was anything bad in that time, they’d show you,” he reasons. So could it be the complete film would put two instances of responsible discipline in the context of a caring training regime, or actually show the tiger enjoying the interaction the way a well-trained dog enjoys playing with its owner?
Take a look at another of Hackenberger’s videos filmed in an outdoor exercise pen and make up your own mind.
When the last Labour government commissioned the Radford Report on the welfare of circus animals, undercover film submitted by animal rights groups was excluded as evidence, precisely because it had no context. In the words of then Minister of State Lord Rooker: “A film showing a lion pacing up and down may indicate evidence of stereotypical behaviour, but equally the film may have been shot when the lion had seen its keeper approaching with food.”
Without such film, the report concluded there was no evidence that animals were more likely to suffer in the circus than any other captive environment.
I understand why many people harbour an instinctive objection to the idea of performing animals. I was brought up with that belief. But when I became interested in circus, I knew I had to visit one of Britain's last big top shows with elephants, tigers and horses to get a glimpse into the disappearing history of where the art form began. My interviews with trainers and my changing opinion on their work forms a major thread of Circus Mania, the book the Mail on Sunday called "A brilliant account of a vanishing art form." Click here to read a sample on Amazon.
Author's Note: I'd be interested to hear the views of any animal trainers on Michael Hackenberger's video and training methods. My impression is that he's maybe at the harsh end of the scale and perhaps a little old school, but I reckon he's sincere. Whether his honesty will cut any ice with his detractors is another matter. We live in an age where the Daily Mail has just run an hysterical piece about a training display during an open day at Amazing Animals - the UK's leading supplier of trained animals to TV and film. There's no 'evidence' of mistreatment underpinning the piece, just the opinion of TV presenter Chris Packham that the very idea of using animals to entertain the public is wrong. In such a climate, it's no wonder that few trainers speak as openly about their methods as Hackenberger. But an open debate on what happens 'behind closed doors' is necessary if the animal training industry is to gain the wider public's trust. Hackenberger's bravery in opening that debate is to be commended.
Update: Unfortunately we live in a world where an open debate on what does or doesn't constitute the abuse of animals is increasingly difficult to have. I wanted to give this post a wider airing on the Huffington Post - a supposedly open-door blogging platform for the expression of all viewpoints - but because Hackenberger admits to striking his tiger twice (in a responsible way) the Huff wasn't "comfortable" with publishing the piece. So TV presenters such as Packham can have their views of animal training aired in the media, but animal trainers, who are the only people who know anything about animal training, aren't allowed to tell us how they work. How can the public make up its mind if it only hears one side of the argument?