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."

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Scotland and Ireland ban wild animals from the big top as the traditional circus slowly disappears

Thomas Chipperfield presents the last big cats
to grace Peter Jolly's Circus, in 2014

“I remember the elephants - just.” Those are the words with which I began Circus Mania. From the first line there was a whiff of nostalgia about my survey of the circus world, even though the focus was not on the history of the big top but a journey through the circus scene as it exists today. The Mail on Sunday called the book “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.” Naturally I was pleased to use the quote in publicity, although some circus aficianados objected to the word “vanishing”. Surely, they argued, the contemporary circus scene is flourishing? A ‘circus hub’ at the Edinburgh Festival and ‘national’ status for the former training school, Circus Space, which became the National Centre for Circus Arts in 2014, reflects a new appreciation for an age-old form of entertainment in today’s arts scene.

But as we enter 2018 - Circus250! - the 250th anniversary of Philip Astley’s first circus, a large part of the circus tradition is vanishing - the tradition of animals as a major part of the traditional circus bill.

The circus was born on horseback - Philip Astley was a trick rider who built his show around equestrian skills. Lions, elephants, sea lions and chimps’ tea parties became, by the mid-20th century part of everyone’s idea of what a circus is.

Today, though, the animals are disappearing fast.

As PT Barnum biopic The Greatest Showman hits cinema screens, the show that bore his name, the 146-year-old Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is no more. Legislation meant it could no longer tour with its elephants and without them it couldn’t sell tickets.

In Britain, meanwhile, just two weeks before the start of Circus250, the Scottish parliament unanimously signed off a ban on wild animals (by which it means all non-native species) in travelling circuses.

Scottish Conservative MSP Donald Cameron said the legislation meant "we will finally and at last truly be able to say Nelly the Elephant has packed her trunk and said goodbye to the circus".

It is the first such ban of its kind in the UK, but will it be the last - and will it end with wild animals or prove to be the thin end of a wedge that eventually squeezes even horses - the animal upon which the circus was founded - from a sawdust circle literally designed for four-legged entertainment?

Martin 'Zippo' Burton
(on the right)
Zippos Circus owner Martin Burton, representing the Association of Circus Proprietors, told the Scottish Parliament that a law based on the proposed ethical grounds "will eventually close your zoos".

He said: "The economic impact on animal displays in shopping centres, on displays at outdoors shows of hawks and wild birds, on reindeer and Santa, and eventually zoos will be massive.

"Once you start banning things, particularly on ethical grounds, it is clear that this will spread, because if it's ethically not right to have a wild animal in a circus, then it is ethically not right to have a wild animal appear at a gala or a county show, and it is ethically not right to have a wild animal appear in a shopping centre, and it is ethically not right to have a wild animal appear in a zoo.

"It is clear and logical that that is the only way an ethical ban can go. You can't choose your ethics, you're either going to say it is ethical or it is not ethical."

Burton’s words are being bourn out in Wales, where the Welsh government is currently planning to introduce a new license for Mobile Animal Exhibitions (MAEs). The legislation is aimed at circuses, but because of the difficulty of defining a circus in a way that separates it from other animal exhibitions, the Countryside Alliance and Kennel Club have raised concerns about the effect on other ‘MAEs’ from cattle shows and dog shows to falconry displays.

Across the Irish Sea, the Irish government decreed in November that wild animals would be banned from travelling circuses in Ireland from January 1, 2018.

In England, a ban on wild animals in the big top proposed by David Cameron’s government has so far been staved off with a successful licensing scheme, although the Scottish ban will give fresh ammunition to the animal rights groups pressing for a ban south of the border.

But even without a national ban, local council legislation has reduced the number of ‘wild’ animals in Britain’s big tops to a handful of camels and zebras spread across Peter Jolly’s Circus and Circus Mondao, while only two or three more circuses, such as Zippos, still have even horses or dogs.

The news reminds me of how lucky I was, as a late convert to the appeal of the big top, to visit the Great British Circus during the writing of Circus Mania and be able to report upon the elephants and tigers that I saw there. At the time, it felt like a rare glimpse into a disappearing past. Re-reading that chapter today, with the Great British Circus now five years closed, I wonder if it was the last glimpse of such a circus that any of us will ever see in the UK again.

Is the disappearance of the animals a good thing for the circus? It's an issue I grappled with during the writing of Circus Mania. I was brought up to believe it was a cruel tradition, but as I interviewed animal trainers and show owners and saw more shows, my understanding grew. By the time I wrote a new chapter for the updated 2018 edition of the book and described my visit to Peter Jolly's Circus my opinion on this always contentious subject had changed a lot from the one I had before I saw my first circus with animals. Perhaps yours will, too.

Click here to buy the updated, new edition of Circus Mania and read about my journey through a world that is disappearing fast.

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