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."

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Is Welsh Assembly trying to 'fix' a circus animals ban?

That’s the opinion of a circus industry angered at the appointment of Professor Stephen Harris, a long term opponent of circuses with animals, to head an “independent review” of whether they should be banned in Wales.

As one insider told me, “A travesty of law-making is about to take place.”

Harris was commissioned to carry out a review of animal welfare in circuses by the Welsh Assembly’s deputy minister for farms and food, Rebecca Evans who announced in December, “The Welsh Government believes there is no place for the use of wild animals in circuses.”

His report is expected to be completed by the end of February, but many in the circus believe his bias will make his findings a foregone conclusion.

In December, Harris was discredited as an expert witness in a fox hunting trial because of his links to the animal rights group, League Against Cruel Sport. His opposition to wild animals in the big top, however, has never been hidden.

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday in 2008, Harris said, ‘Every intelligent person knows that circuses are cruel. They should not be allowed to use wild animals.’

In 2011, he told the Daily Mail, ‘You can’t control big wild animals without the use of force, and that means regularly beating the living daylights out of them. It’s as simple as that. For this reason, and for many others, wild animals should not be allowed in circuses.’

Harris previously published a study on the Welfare of Wild Animals in Circuses. His findings were entirely negative, but his methodology was fundamentally flawed. Rather than carrying out any original research of his own, he relied on existing studies of animals in captivity from around the world, most of which had no relevance to animals in the very specific circumstances of life in the circus, and particularly circuses in Britain.

At one point, for example, he notes that there were no scientific studies on stress levels of circus animals during transportation. Instead of taking the opportunity to conduct a study of his own, he relies on a study of cortisol (the stress hormone) levels of zoo tigers during transport - ignoring that fact that zoo tigers would never become acclimatised to transport in the way that circus tigers are.

There has, however, since been a cortisol test  on the lions of Martin Lacey Jr, during a 800 km trip across Europe that showed the animals suffered no stress whatsoever. What’s more, the lions were so comfortable with their trainer that he was able to take saliva swabs from the animals’ mouths with his fingers - something that would be impossible with zoo tigers, which would generally have to be anaesthetised before being handled so intimately. The test can be viewed on YouTube here.

It appears Harris will take the same approach with his current report as he did with his last, drawing on previous studies from around the world rather than visiting actual UK circuses and inspecting the animals and their living conditions for himself, as he has so far made no approaches to the UK’s wild animal trainers .

There have previously been only two comprehensive studies of circus animals in the UK.

The first by Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington was sponsored by the RSPCA in the late 80s and concluded that circuses did not by nature cause distress to their animals. You can read it here.

The Radford Report, commissioned by the last Labour government, similarly found no welfare reasons to ban circus animals. Read it here.

It would be nice to think Harris’ report might highlight the findings of those two studies.

Unfortunately, this is what Harris told the Daily Mail about the Radford Report at the time: “The whole review process was dishonest and a waste of time. It’s cruel to train animals to do tricks, keep them in tiny cages, truck them around the country and prevent them from expressing their natural behaviour. It’s farcical to claim otherwise.”

It seems Harris was angered at having his own contribution to the Radford enquiry ignored. Who could blame the circus industry for fearing that his current review will be an opportunity for him to finally bring forward the ban he has always wanted?

Update 10 February: Meanwhile in Westminster... Chirstopher Chope brings hope that government is changing its mind about a ban. Click here for latest.

Update January 2017: Although the Harris report supports a ban, the Welsh government appears to be moving towards a licensing scheme similar to that in England, although this will be subject to a public consultation in the coming year. Read more on this story here.

Does the news from Wales reflect changing attitudes in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world? Click here for more on the political circus.

Did you know this debate has been going on for a century?
Click here to read the 100-year history of attempts to ban animals from entertainment.

And click here for 10 Facts the Welsh Assembly Needs to Know About Circus Animals.


  1. and yet 60 African elephants were behaeaded in Zimbabwe in one evening this month jaanuary2016.Why? because game keepers are annoyed at poor pay so they poisened them with cyanide laden poranges. Yet Harris and other sick sick animal rights addicts in this vile cult would have us believe that the wild is some sort of Disnyland utopia. They have their own aganeda. They are like Nazis towards animal owners

  2. Thank you for writing this Douglas and providing more than adequate evidence that Professor Harris is not a suitable person to be conducting this review. His associate worker Heather Pickett also has considerable amounts of affiliation with various animal-rights organisations. Jo Dorning, the final member of this team, is a Ph.D. student working under Professor Harris. I think it is highly unlikely, due to her position, that she would take any position other than that of Pickett and Harris. I am taking part in the process of this review against my better judgement. However, I do not want to be accused the end of the day of not providing input when inevitably I will feel obligated to strongly criticise the outcome which we all know will be a ban on wild animals in circuses. I am sorry to say that their reassurances that this will be an open and fair scientific assessment of this issue does not reassure me.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I recommend your blog to anyone seeking more info on the difference between animal rights and animal welfare.

  3. "Harris' contribution to Radford ignored?" Not by some of those whose genuinely scientific researches were distorted there. Prof Ted Friend (Texas A&M University) and his colleagues had conducted various studies on behalf of the US government. Prof Friend wrote to a Minister of the then Labour government that he was 'flattered' to be told Prof Harris had used his material - but only until he read Harris's so-called 'report'. 'Our work has been egregiously misrepresented', he complained. What Prof Harris had done was to quote points from the research - which rightly raised questions - without quoting a single one of Friend's conclusions! That's because those conclusions are, by and large, positive towards circuses. As is every other report on the subject which draws on genuinely scientific research for its conclusions. One can't help but surmise that someone is making a profit out of this anti-circus pretence -- at the price of truth and freedom of choice!

    1. Animal rights groups including ADI, CAPS, Born Free have a collective income of £350 million a year in donations in the UK alone.