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."

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The sad case of the vanishing circus animals

The circus - where else can you get this
close to a tiger?







I just read an article in which the writer took a package trip to India costing £3195 per person. The “highlight” was a visit to a national park where a tiger walked within 200 yards of her truck. This was considered “lucky” since a sighting is not guaranteed.

Compare that with my spur of the moment visit to the Great British Circus (tickets about £5) where I sat within feet of half a dozen tigers displaying all their natural cat-like behaviours, such as jumping between pedestals in return for a piece of pork. And where I also saw horses galloping within feet of me, camels parading past and elephants swishing their trunks and tusks around close enough to make me lean back in my seat.

Compare it, too, to my visit to Peter Jolly’s Circus where I sat for a hour listening to Thomas Chipperfield explain how big cats are trained by using their natural inquisitiveness. The trainer’s stick and whip, for example, aren’t used to keep the animal away, but to draw it towards you, the way a house cat follows a piece of string.

Tsavo the lion relaxes backstage
Within minutes of talking to Thomas, who’s family has been training animals for 300 years, it was clear he knew more about his animals than you would ever learn from a television documentary. Out behind the tent, meanwhile, it was a pleasure to see one of his lions, Tsavo, looking so relaxed, contented and well-kept in his sunny enclosure.

During the shows, it was clear that the animals were the main attraction, particularly for the many children in the audience, who watched enthralled, unlikely ever to be so close to such beasts (for the big top was set up in an area where few residents were likely to spend £3000+ per person on a foreign safari).

Yet the pleasure and educational benefits that the circus brings is under threat.

The Great British Circus closed several years ago when a ban on wild animals in travelling shows was first mooted. A licensing scheme was brought in as a temporary measure, which allowed Chipperfield to tour his animals with Peter Jolly’s Circus.

Me and the Elephant
The author meets one of the last jumbos
to appear in a British circus
Earlier this year, however, Chipperfield was denied a license to tour with his big cats in a show of his own. He is currently planning an appeal against the decision, but with DEFRA proclaiming its commitment to letting the temporary licence scheme expire in 2020, and thus bringing in a ban by default, the political deck is clearly stacked against Chipperfield.

We can only hope that Britain's Last Lion Tamer prevails against the odds and gives audiences at least one more chance to see his animals close up.

When my book Circus Mania was first published, including accounts of my visits to Britain’s last animal circuses, the Mail on Sunday called it “A brilliant account of a vanishing art form.”

Is it still “vanishing”? Or will Circus Mania prove to be the last description of an art form that has already vanished from the country where the circus was born?

Click here to buy the updated 2nd Edition of Circus Mania from Amazon. 

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