Last Tuesday I visited the Arlette Gruss Circus, in the pretty Alsace town of Colmar, an hour’s drive from Strasbourg. I was a guest of the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Circus Arts, APTCA.
It is decades since I attended a proper circus, so it was an exciting opportunity to revisit an important cultural tradition. But the main reason for going was to get some context on the on-going debate on the use of animals in circus (and indeed in zoos). So appropriately enough we started with the animals, which between shows are kept in zoo-type conditions, with cages but also with small exercise areas. This facility operates between shows as a zoo, and is visited as such by the public, for entertainment and edification. There were of course horses. I spend much of my time around horses, having a couple at home, and to my untutored eye these beasts seemed to be in good condition, and entirely relaxed.
I reflected that keeping and training horses for dressage is regarded as a wholly excellent activity. Yet when similar training and performance is undertaken for the circus, it seems to get the strident animal rights lobby hot under the collar. In the show, the “ringmaster” for the horses’ act was a girl of only thirteen — born and raised in the circus. I can imagine that the horses’ training — and hers — were a mutual learning experience. And Yes, she did have a whip, but No, she didn’t use it to lash the horses. Rather, it’s an extension of her arm, enabling her to reach out and communicate with them across the ring.
There were a couple of Shetland ponies. Then the “Exotics”. Zebras (including the compulsory “zedonk” cross). Llamas. A camel. A couple of unusual and impressive bovines. And after the exotics, the elephants — four handsome Asian elephants. These were being groomed for the evening’s show. I noticed that a couple of them were shifting from foot to foot with a rhythmic motion. This of course is claimed by the “animal rights” lobby to be evidence of boredom, anxiety, ennui and stress. But studies of elephants in the wild by serious scientists show that this is an entirely natural and commonplace behaviour. In such a large beast, the action of the heart, in pumping blood, is augmented by the motion of the legs, which, in conjunction with the valve system in the arteries, assists in returning blood from the feet. This happens automatically when elephants walk. When they stand still, they get the same effect by rocking.
Then the pièce de résistance — the big cats. There were a couple of magnificent white lions, three tigers, a “liger” (lion/tiger cross), and several others that I lost count of. We were shown around by Tom, a third-generation lion trainer also born and raised in the circus. When I saw the big cats, they were all asleep. Like most big predators, they do rather a lot of sleeping between feeds. I was particularly struck by the three tigers, lying side by side, each with a paw over the next, for all the world like my cats at home in front of the Aga. Again, they had cages at the back but much larger pens in front.
I asked, perhaps naïvely, how Tom roused them from their refreshing slumbers to get them set for work. Rather easily, it turns out. They hear the music from the big top when the performance starts, and they know it’s Showtime, and are keen to participate. I heard some touching anecdotal evidence about the attitude of the animals to their work. There was the animal behaviourist who arranged for only half of a troupe of eight elephants to perform. The remainder, left outside, clearly understood that they were missing the show, and became visibly anxious and vexed, and actually tried to perform their routine outside.
Or the old lioness who was deemed to have earned an honourable retirement. But on being left out of the act, she showed such marked signs of distress that they had to let her into the ring, though by reason of age she did little but sit down and sleep through the act. Certainly from what little I know of horses, they love to work, and look forward to outings. There is nothing that gets a horse quite so excited as arriving at the Meet.
There are ignorant romantics on the fringes of the animal rights lobby who propose that circus lions should be released back into the wild. But of course the animals we see in circuses today have been bred in zoos and circuses for generations — more than half a century. There is no way they’d survive in the wild. I made a point of visiting the freezer truck, stacked with beef for the big cats. Without it, they’d be in very poor shape.
I understand that in the UK, DEFRA is looking at the laws relating to circus animals, and has grudgingly conceded that there is no welfare case for banning animal acts in circuses. But under intense pressure from the strident animal rights lobby, they are now considering whether in the absence of any welfare case, there may be “a moral case” to ban animal acts. This is bizarre. The only basis for any moral case would be animal welfare, and they’ve already agreed that there is no such case. There is a real danger that groundless opposition to circus animals will become a shibboleth of “politically correct” thinking, accepted without thought or analysis, to the extreme detriment of a great European circus tradition.
The animal rights lobby, as I’ve often said, is driven more by hatred of people than love of animals. Opposing animals in circuses has become simply an article of faith, pursued with almost religious fervour, and entirely divorced from the real interests of animals. Let’s not forget that PETA, http://www.peta.org/ a lynch-pin of the animal rights movement, has declared that its ultimate aim is to ban domestic pets (or as they would say, “companion animals”) entirely, on the grounds that owning a pet is “demeaning to the animal”. Try telling that to my cats as they stretch out in front of the Aga.