The saddest show on earth

by Ivan Hernandez

When we think about the circus we probably form a mental image with clowns, trapeze artists, striped tents, happy children and wild animals ready to wow the crowd performing tricks. This all sounds harmless enough, and it is an institution that goes back to the 18th century. Without doubt travelling circuses have entertained the masses for hundreds of years, so what is all the fuss about now?

Circuses with animals have come under fire in recent years by animal welfare and animal rights groups as well as veterinarian associations due to their concerns that the animals involved suffer greatly from neglect, the training methods and from being confined in small enclosures. Indeed an increasing portion of the general population now considers the circus to be cruel and detrimental to animals and their well-being and there are 17 countries which have already banned circuses with animals, including Austria and Netherlands. In the UK polls show that over 95% of the population would be in favour of a ban. There have been attempts since 2012 to discuss a ban in parliament through private member bills but these have been repeatedly blocked by a handful MPs (one of them our well known friend Andrew Rosindale) and the current administration is yet to honour their manifesto commitment of a ban despite overwhelming public and political cross party support. In Spain there is an increasing number of towns that have declared themselves free from circuses with animals.

Why now? Why is it circuses with animals are now seen in such a negative light? My guess is that public perception has changed over the years as we have begun to have a greater understanding of wild animals and their natural environment. We also now recognise that animals’ needs extend to the emotional and psychological as well as the physical. Undercover investigations from animal welfare groups have also brought to the fore the cruelty involved in the training methods and with the rise of social media this message spreads fast.

The first global study into circus animals published in 2009 in the Animal Welfare journal found that animals such as lions, tigers, bears and elephants are the least suited to a life of entertaining. Between 1% and 9% of time is spent training, the rest of the time is spent in confinement in areas less than a quarter of the size recommended by zoos and in an environment with no enrichment or stimulation. Travel also takes it’s toll on animals, only being in any destination for about a week before going on the road again. Even when they are not travelling they are still shackled for 12 to 23 hours a day in a small area of less than 7 square metres. If you are an elephant that really is not much space, considering elephants can travel 50 kilometres a day and will spend 50% of their time feeding. Everything about a circus environment is unnatural to these animals and this is manifested in unnatural forms of behaviour, such as repeated head bobbing, swaying and pacing.

We must also consider what it takes for circus animals to perform tricks. If any one of us were to stand in front of a lion, a tiger or a bear in the wild we wouldn’t stand much of a chance to tell the tale. A circus trainer stands in front of any of these beasts and can make them jump through hoops blazing with fire. In the wild animals run away from fire. They can make elephants do headstands, but elephants never stand on their trunks. What does it take? It certainly isn’t reward. Physical punishment has always been the standard training method. Bullhooks, whips, electric shock prods are popular instruments used. Bullhooks are used to pierce an elephant’s skin and are then twisted to inflict pain. Drugging animals is also common as well as the surgical removal of teeth and claws to make them more manageable. Seeing animals perform tricks may be fun, but this is the price to pay and indeed it is not us who have to pay this.

The circus with animals is one of many human activities than relies on cruelty but which we tend to think little about. A recent eye opening Horizon programme on BBC revealed that only 3% of the money generated by zoos goes into conservation efforts, contradicting the argument that zoos are vital for conservation. It is hard to resist the lure of a lion cub or tiger cub on display from zoos nearby especially when we are allowed to pet them. If you can do this so can everyone else that pays the entrance fee after seeing the cute posts on social media. Lions and tigers are not meant to be petted. Take swimming with dolphins. Children love it, but where did those dolphins come from? Breeding rates reveal a dire mortality rate of 50% for calves, and the irony is that many of these tanks that they are confined to are right on the coast. Dolphins (including orcas) are some of the most intelligent and magnificent creatures on the planet and swim hundreds of kilometres a day, yet we are happy to keep them in pools comparable to us living inside a bathtub. Other activities also include riding on a horse and carriage, pony rides at the fair, seeing birds of prey on display in medieval fairs across the border…the list is endless. All it takes it to look at things from a different perspective to see what lies behind all these things.

Although I have always been opposed to circuses with animals the reason I have felt compelled to write about it is the presence of a circus in our neighbouring town of La Linea. Nothing new really, there are several circuses that go there every year but this time I heard an advert for it on the local radio and posters have been placed around town. I found this highly disappointing and so did hundreds of people that took on to social media to express this in hearing those adverts. I understand those who say that we have the choice of not going, true, it’s up to us to participate or not as the case may be, but there are those who don’t have a choice and they are the ones being exploited. This raises the question of the ethics behind advertising activities that promote cruelty to animals and whether it is worth the advertising revenue.

Circuses are aimed mainly at children, is this what we want our children to see? Animals being exploited? Many will take it at face value and enjoy the show, children after all have innocent eyes and do not see the abuse involved, but what can they take from seeing other living beings treated with such disrespect and indignity? Is it not better to teach children that animals deserve to be saved, cared for, rescued and protected? That it is better to be selfless and not enjoy the suffering of another living being for the sake of entertainment?

There is more information out there than ever before and there is no denying that captivity and this kind of entertainment is cruel. I believe a child will gain much more by spending an afternoon out in the bay on one of the dolphin boat rides seeing them in their natural state and being educated in how amazing dolphins are than by taking them to a dolphinarium to see them jump for fish. Likewise with wild animals, although a safari experience may be out of many people’s budgets even a good documentary about African wildlife will be infinitely more educational than seeing elephants, lions and tigers perform in a circus or dare I say even at the zoo.

Circuses with animals don’t come to Gibraltar probably due to logistical reasons but that shouldn’t stop us from rejecting such practices as a community and even be proactive and declare Gibraltar free from circuses with animals and any other activities that promote cruelty to animals. A lot more can be gained for our future generations by rejecting such practices. This is a humane issue where we all have a collective responsibility to not turn a blind eye to the plight of animals being exploited. We have a responsibility to our children so that their generation is one of kinder human beings than ours and where we put the interests of those who are helpless above our own needs for entertainment.
I very much doubt Cirque du Soleil would have to give away free tickets in competitions as we have had in some local media outlets as a way to promote themselves. There is no denying shows like Cirque du Soleil are awesome and are true artistry. Circuses with animals however have earned the title of being the saddest show on Earth.

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