Chapter 1

In the last two decades or so, circuses in Britain have been on the decline, and some of the best known circuses have sold up (e.g. Bertram Mills) or given up travelling shows. This has been for many reasons. One of them has been the declining gates as the result of competition in entertainment from television and video. Another reason has been the publics changing attitudes to animals, particularly wild animals and their welfare. Conflicts (sometimes bitter and violent) with animal liberation activists have occasionally been the outcome. The RSPCA have been successful in sometimes lobbying local councils to ban circuses from their traditional tenting grounds.

Various television personalities with zoological interests have also come out against having animals in circuses, but not zoos. Zoos have come under criticism from some quarters but for various social reasons they have been successful at countering critical arguments; it is often argued that zoos are not necessarily cruel and wrong (but there are bad zoos), whereas circuses are by their nature cruel. This, perhaps more than any other single factor, has tended to make many from the middle classes consider that circuses are bad things where animals are exploited, badly looked after, badly treated, and inevitably suffer physically and mentally. On top of all this, they have to do unnatural acts to entertain human beings. It is widely believed by the nature loving urban dweller that in order to perform these acts the animals must have had to be goaded, shocked, burnt and hit.

The circus people in Britain find themselves somewhat bemused by the publics change of attitude to the circus. Even in Switzerland, which has the strongest of all animal welfare legislation, the circus trainer and presenter is someone who is famous, and is a respected and admired artist. Here in Britain he or she may find themselves among people who despise them, and consider them almost criminal. Not only have the British circuses come up against hard times economically, but those which retain their animals have had to examine their motives and try to justify their profession in a way which the conventional horse trainer or zoo-keeper has rarely had to do. Some proprietors have decided that continuing with the travelling circus is not worth all the unpleasantness and have gone into other businesses.

Yet there remain perhaps a couple of dozen families in Britain who are circus people. The circus world and profession is all they have ever known and loved, and they not only keep going, but keep educating their children into it to ensure that their life will continue somehow. Economic difficulties will, one feels, always be staggered through; ingenuity and self-reliance are the circus peoples middle names. Even if there was only one member in the audience: THE SHOW MUST GO ON.

The only real threat to the end of British circuses, and therefore to a uniquely different way of animal and human living, is the outlawing of circuses. This could happen should the government consider that circus people should not be allowed to live their lives as they wish; or that their animals should be kept no longer. Circuses are not really circuses without animals - they have been tried unsuccessfully (e.g. Circus Hassani on tour 1980, Gerry Cottles Circus 1984-85). Over sixty percent of the circus-going audiences who returned our questionnaire said they would not go if there were no animals (Appendix 3).

The circus people are a close-knit, worldwide, nomadic sub-culture who are dependent on their animals; not for breeding, slaughter or experimentation but for their skills. Their children are brought up and usually educated within what effectively is a multi-species community. Like other minority nomadic cultures - such as the Lapps, the Bedouin, the Masai, the Aborigines and the Inuits - their way of life is under threat. This is not primarily because of human population increase and environmental threat, changes in land tenure or political boundaries, but because they have performing animals.

Whether or not the disappearance of minority human cultures is a good or a bad thing is not the point in question here. However, we must recognise in considering the banning of circuses that there are serious implications for a minority human culture as well as for individual humans and animals. We must be quite sure that the amount of pain and suffering that the animals must sustain in circuses outweighs that in other animal enterprises, and we must consider the anguish sustained by the humans, who will no longer be able to live their lives as they wish and are accustomed to, before they are singled out and outlawed. On the other hand, zoos are not a sub-culture or human community who live and work together. The zoo personnel may be united in their interest in zoos, but it is a job they go to at certain hours. They do not live within it or bring up their children within it.

The first question to ask then is: Is there more cruelty and suffering sustained by animals in circuses than in other animal husbandry systems? Even if it is found that there is no more nor less animal suffering in circuses than in other animal husbandry systems, this does not allow us to assume that all is acceptable within the circus. What we must do first is:

  1. consider if this suffering is endemic to the circus: that by its nature there will inevitably be unavoidable high levels of animal suffering, or
  2. consider ways of reducing or eliminating this animal suffering within the circus, and
  3. consider if there are any important and unique contributions to the living world as a whole that circuses do, or could make.

Points a, b, and c must also be considered for other larger and more common animal husbandry enterprises such as zoos, farms, kennels, stables, pets and so on if we are to be consistent. Of course, human attitudes to animals are generally very inconsistent. The same people who demonstrate outside circuses will often happily chump their way through a pig that was conceived, born, raised, transported and slaughtered in conditions that are much more restrictive and unnatural than one would see in a circus where hundreds rather than millions of animals lives are at stake. We knowingly tolerate cruelty on a massive scale where it affects our personal comfort, but God help one if one rides a lion, or has a pet bear (South West BBC TV News, 16 December 1989). Perhaps we should be more consistent. By examining the vexed question of the acceptability of zoos and circuses carefully, we can begin to think more rationally about animal welfare and ethics in general. The question of whether or not there should be animals in circuses raises all the questions pertinent to the animal welfare debates: ecological, ethological and ethical.

It has been argued by many [1;2; 3; 4 and 5] that if animals are subject to prolonged suffering then the husbandry system is unacceptable: the husbandry is cruel.

The first question addressed therefore is Are the animals in British circuses subject to prolonged suffering? Physical suffering is relatively easy to assess: it involves malnutrition, inadequate veterinary attention to wounds, disease, and normal prophylactics (e.g. worming) or feet trimming. It also involves assessing the frequency of occupational disease, for example evidence for strains or wounds as the result of the animals work.

If an animal or a human being is stressed for prolonged periods, then there are various physiological changes. One of these is often a reduced resistance to disease [6]. Thus the frequency of diseases, or the widespread use of prophylactic drugs to control the common occurrence of disease (such as feeding antibiotics to intensively raised livestock) is indicative of stress or suffering.

In addition, surgery is sometimes used not only to preserve life or cure disease, but also to overcome behavioural problems that interfere with a particular form of management; for example, the widespread castration of male animals, or neck surgery in horses to prevent a stereotypic behaviour known as crib-biting, or debarking of dogs and declawing cats. Surgery is also used for cosmetic reasons; for example, ear clipping and tail docking certain breeds of dog, or the cutting of the vibrissae of horses for the show ring.

An assessment of the frequency of the use of drugs and surgery for these reasons will be relevant to an assessment of suffering in those animals in that environment.

It has been argued [7; 8] that whether or not animals breed in the environment is another index of their wellbeing. Whether this is a sufficient indicator is highly disputed as animals and humans may breed in extremely deprived and confined environments but zoos often argue that the breeding of endangered species is their main raison detre [9; 10]. Lack of breeding, on the other hand, can be used as one indicator of environmental inadequacy. Thus the amount of breeding in circuses must also be assessed.

Even if there is apparently little or no physical suffering demonstrated by these assessments, this does not mean that the animals may not be suffering psychologically. How can this be assessed? This has been debated heavily in the last decade and a half, particularly because of questions over the adequacy of farm livestock enterprises [1;11; 12]. There is much controversy among applied ethologists on how to measure psychological suffering, but there is also some agreement. I feel it is high time we made a real effort to apply some of the ideas that have come out of these debates to assessing practical examples of animal welfare.

The controlled environment of circuses and zoos: animal husbandry systems that are considered human luxuries, and therefore where the animals should be most sympathetically treated, is an ideal place to begin.

How much suffering is too much? This is a difficult problem since inevitably a living being will feel distressed and suffer sometimes, and without this he or she may not be able to feel joy and pleasure. But there is another approach that can help here - this is the assessment of behavioural restriction.

The idea that the animal should have the opportunity to perform their normal behavioural repertoire [13] has come under attack as a result of our lack of understanding of motivation. How do we know if the animal really needs to perform all the behaviour in its repertoire? Evolution tells us that the animal has evolved to live in a particular range of habitats and social organisations and has also evolved various behaviours which have helped them to survive. The species has also evolved a brain with specific types of expertise and abilities. Thus from the studies of the wild or feral animal who is unrestricted, we have considerable a priori knowledge about how and where the species evolved to live and how it behaves. Thus we can assume that an animals well-being depends upon:

  1. his being in this kind of environment, and
  2. his being able to perform these behaviours.

Hence, if we wish to ensure he is in an environment to which he is well adapted (and therefore less likely to show evidence of prolonged distress), we should ensure that he is in such an appropriate environment.

In the wild, the animal may, by some of his behaviour, cause prolonged or acute suffering to others (e.g. hunting and killing). While he is under human jurisdiction, we should, perhaps, not cater for this part of behavioural repertoire as we also have duties to the hunted. On the other hand, since it may be that chasing and hunting may be particularly important to that animal, we should provide some form of substitute for this.

If we take this line of argument, the amount of behavioural restriction as a result of the animals environment will give us an indicator of the degree to which it might be suffering. For example, a leopard is a relatively solitary forest-living creature which loves to climb. Keeping it in a large social group with nothing to climb on and no cover is likely to cause the leopard discomfort and probably also to suffer, although this would not necessarily be true for lions.

Of course, animals in the wild also suffer. They may suffer physically from extremes of temperature: heat or cold, from hunger, thirst and disease. They may also suffer mentally as a result, for example, of the death of their mother or infant or social partner. At least in these respects, provided the husbandry is good, domestic and captive animals should not have to suffer as much. In an assessment of behavioural restriction we must not ignore these features of the natural wild environment.

In these ways I have attempted to assess the relative amount of suffering of animals in circuses and other husbandry systems, particularly zoos. However, if animals can have unpleasant emotions (pain, fear, anxiety) then equally they must feel positive emotions (pleasure, joy, affection). How can we assess these? We have some idea from everyday observation of the demonstrative dog and horse. Using the detailed quantitatively recorded behavioural observations reported here - and previous work on displays and their meaning - I have made a first tentative step in trying to assess this for zoo and circus animals (Chapters 4 and 5).

This brings us to the subject of training animals for circuses. How is this done? Is it cruel (i.e. does it cause prolonged suffering)? Do animals lose dignity by doing certain acts? If so, what acts are they, and are they respected less by human beings as a result? Are there any positive effects of training? If so, what are they, and do the animals and/or the humans benefit? (Chapter 6)

One group of arguments against zoos and circuses is that, even though their theoretical aims (eg conservation, education and research) may be acceptable, they inevitably cause suffering to animals, and are therefore cruel and wrong. Is this the case?

Another argument is that whether or not they cause suffering or pleasure to animals, they are by their nature wrong because, for example, they keep traditionally wild animals in captivity, or display animals in unnatural ways.

Most of the various arguments for and against zoos and circuses also apply to all other animal husbandry systems so this debate encompasses our treatment of and attitudes to animals in all types of animal enterprises. Zoos and circuses act as a springboard because:

    1. they exist primarily to entertain human beings, and
    2. they keep wild animals in captivity (under human jurisdiction).

All the arguments must be examined carefully. The next four chapters do this, starting at the beginning: the degree to which we differ from or are similar to other higher mammals, and as a result the type of consideration that should be given to animals. Then the problems with the total respect for life approach are pointed out. One of the consequences of this position, and one which society seems to be working towards, could be an animal apartheid. Is this a good or a bad thing? Then there is the problem of the behavioural effect of domestication and whether wild animals should be given special status, and considered differently from domestic animals. This gives rise to the problem of what is natural and whether only natural actions are acceptable for any animal, or human being.

We then look at the arguments that have been, or could be, put forward for zoos and circuses and examine them to see if they could be, or are in fact, put into practice. There are conservation arguments that are pertinent, but also those to do with education, research and our understanding of other living beings are discussed.

When we have, all be it briefly, examined how circuses operate in practice and the various arguments for and against them and zoos, it is clear that the issues are more complex than one might have supposed, and that we need some sort of series of guidelines or a blueprint to help in designing environments that will be acceptable to animals so that we can live with them in a mutually beneficial way: symbioticalyl "

I have attempted to do this, and conclude that provided these criteria are met then no animal husbandry system is unacceptable, including zoos or circuses, even though they do not at present exist necessarily in this form. It only remains to point out the most urgent changes needed in zoos and circuses in order to reduce or eliminate animal suffering, and to make constructive suggestions and recommendations as to how this can be done.

Animal welfare debates are growing up slowly, and those who take part in them, even the extreme radicals on both sides of the argument, are beginning to realise the value of rational debate.

Scientists are not educated, as a rule, to ask questions concerning the nature of their science, but rather they believe that what they consider good science is FACT.

By contrast, philosophers are taught to be critical thinkers - everything is subject to question and debate; on the grounds that it is only by such open-minded debate that we can progress in our thinking and understanding of the world. On the other hand, equally important in this progress is the absorption of new, different, or long-forgotten information, some of which may well have been accrued from many sources, including empirical studies; that is from science.

Only if these two approaches to understanding and knowledge are put together can we avoid the trap of spending a lifetime inventing the wheel - learning commonsense knowledge [14].

Science is societys present deity, and the general public as well as scientists themselves are in awe of the scientific fact, the truth. Yet, at the same time, there are murmurings and mutterings of intuitive dissatisfaction with this approach from some thinking people. An illustration may clarify this point. Richard Dawkins is a populariser of scientific truth, whose publisher on the flyleaf of one of his latest books [15] was bold enough to say: Paleys case (for the existence of God on the grounds of the purposefulness and complexity of living things) is totally wrong. Dawkins himself says concerning fairies (page 292 in the same book):

...we can never prove that fairies do not exist. All that we can say is that no sightings of fairies have ever been confirmed, and that such alleged photographs of them as have been produced are palpable fakes... Any categorical statement I make that fairies dont exist is vulnerable to the possibility that one day I may see a gossamer-winged little person at the bottom of the garden.

These statements I find truly awe-inspiring in their blind faith, their conviction that, in the first place, God (in the second case, Truth) is on their side and that the existence of fairies must remain in doubt until they are confirmed, by some empirically measurable means. How cosy it must be to have so little doubt, such religious fanaticism!

Perhaps many of us intuitively find such an approach slightly lacking. By such statements not only is a douche of cold water being metaphorically thrown in the face of fun, but fantasy, imagination, ideas, perhaps even feelings, are being denied. Few of us have the knowledge or training in critical thinking to challenge such statements which are so close to the edifice of our technological society. One who does is Stephen Clark [16], a philosopher and for many years one of the major thinkers concerning animal welfare issues. He sums up this attitude (page 353):

...If fairies (or dreams? - my addition J are regularly, even if eccentrically seen, then fairies are as real as any other ideas... To believe in fairies is to acknowledge, and even to make real to oneself, the intermittent presence of spirits that enter our ordinary consciousness as moods of love or alienation, wild joy or anger... To doubt or disprove their existence it is necessary to do more than dredge Loch Ness or dig up every haunted mound.

Surely what science is about is the assessment of knowledge and ideas from all possible sources, one of which is empirical measurements. Other sources may also provide information or knowledge.

It is in animal welfare debates where such differences in approach are constantly clashing. Often each side does not recognise why their differences are so gross, each believing that they are the reasonable rational human, the others ludicrous cranks or non-feeling mealy-mouthed automatons. Their differences are fundamental in relation to their different view of the world, and it would seem sensible that the first stage is to examine the premise on which the edifice stands, not to bat the ball on the periphery.

There are a large number of societies and individuals concerned with animal welfare who reflect societys slightly ambiguous attitude: giving lip service to Dawkins type of science, yet at the same time not prepared completely to deny the existence of fairies...of dreams, of imagination, which they know exist.

To keep the sensible rational debate in the hands of the empirical scientist, and thus to avoid examining the foundations of the argument, Animal Welfare Science [17; 18] has been invented and professional chairs instituted in it. Yet such is a contradiction in terms, unless we understand by science an interdisciplinary search for knowledge.

Animal Welfare, inevitably, is fundamentally concerned with moral judgements; empirical measurements are useful only in so far as their results can be used to inform the ethical arguments.

Even those often considered to be representing the epitome of empirical scientific knowledge, the sub-atomic physicists are now concluding that it is sometimes the observer who affects the behaviour of sub-atomic particles [19]. It sometimes seems that modern biological thinking is stuck in the age of Newtonian mechanics; can we not progress towards applying Quantum theory and a more holistic approach in our thinking about living systems?

It would seem that Animal Welfare, which inevitably throws us into examining our own view of the world, is an ideal area to try out such thinking.

To date, the philosophers have started the ball rolling, and made the greatest contribution in this area [e.g. 20; 2; 22; 23; 24; 25].But the philosophers do not necessarily have great knowledge of the scientific work that has been accumulated and is relevant to the issues.

Perhaps by listening carefully and understanding the various ethical arguments, and having a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of the animals themselves, will we be able to make considered judgements; putting together results from empirical study of their behaviour, practical knowledge of caring for and training the animals themselves, and the ethical arguments. Such an holistic approach would no doubt benefit the welfare of the animals as well as assist the advancement of biological science into the post-Newtonian age!

We must therefore summarise briefly the arguments that people have made for and against circuses. Inevitably this will seem superficial, but the reader is referred to the bibliography should he or she wish to go further with this. It is also inevitable that, despite my efforts not to, I will have misquoted or misunderstood certain arguments. I can assure you that this is not my intention, although I am not above taking the odd dig, as I am sure others will do of this work.

As a result of considering these questions (more to avoid any hypocrisy in ones own mind and life, than to argue for a strongly held view), one comes to some sort of conclusion: a modus vivendi. Not all the problems are solved; compromises have to be made. It is a question of where the lines are drawn, and why they are drawn in one place or another.

While I would never go so far as to say that they are true and right and all others are just wrong, I believe that these are rational conclusions genuinely supported by the relevant information and that the lines have been drawn as well as they can be in the light of present knowledge and understanding.

At the end of the day, however, my only truly strongly held view is that I believe in debate and that our worst enemy is anyone holding unthinking, unquestioning, narrow minded, bigotted views - be she or he politician, scientist, religious fanatic, animal liberationist or zoo or circus fan.

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