Curtain Raiser

Not Here to Amuse Us, Colltalers

Animal welfare organizations are celebrating this week’s decision by the U.K. to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, effective at the end of next year. England thus officially becomes the 10th country to do it so, following a mixed bag of nations with hardly anything in common.
Some, as the Netherlands, had done it as early as 2008, while others, like Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, Slovenia, Greece and Cyprus, only prove that no nation needs to be in the now reduced G7 bloc, or even have a booming economy, to take sensible steps towards animal well being.
The ‘dark horse’ of this list is China, which despite having shown tolerance to widespread animal abuse and cruel practices, surprised the world three years ago by enacting a ban. Critics say that, unlike rules preventing government criticism, for instance, such ban is hardly enforced.
That doesn’t undermine the fact that even within an authoritarian regime, animal welfare is still a cause worth debating even by those who do not consider it to be of the same gravity as human rights violations and free expression, to name but two other serious issues.
In fact, how we treat animals in itself is a not entirely separated issue from what we deem inherent qualities of being human. How we relate not just to other species, but to the natural world and the planet has the potential to inexorably tilt the needle towards the whole range of cruelties we associated with ‘the beast,’ and definitely away from our noble pursuits of equanimity and justice to all living beings. Which, in any case, is just an abstraction.
But we digress. The debate over why we use animals to our own entertainment is as offensive now as it used to be in Roman times, when the Caesars perceived its potential (as in Panis et Circenses) to divert the masses’ attention from their own misery, and thus keeping them content and satisfied.
It was certainly used before for similar purposes, but despite 20 centuries of civilization, the history of the modern circus is one of abject exploitation of the physically handicapped for entertainment, no moral consideration given, and that includes cruelty towards the most vulnerable, wild animals.
There seems to be a growing tide towards considering any kind of imprisonment and bounded conditions towards animals, with its implicit lack of consent, the same way we already view it if it’s being done
towards one of our own. And we even have a name for it: torture, pure and simple.
But if there’s indeed such a trend, we may be still on its early stages, and progress has been as slow and full of backlashes, as what it took for ending slavery, for example, all puns intended. Running out of excuses, defenders are prone to invoke the argument about ‘the kids’ and the ‘science.’
It goes like this: city kids have rarely an opportunity to come in touch with wild beasts, apart from circuses and zoos (we’ll get to that in a minute), thus it’s justifiable to ‘expose’ them under a tent, performing stupid tricks to our amusement. It’s neither about kids nor about science, of course.
Circus animals have little left of their true nature, and what they undergo in order to ‘perform’ is something that even kids know it’s associated with banned medieval practices of containment. At the end of the day, it’s doubtful that anyone would continue supporting it if they’d know about them.
Talking about cities, a parallel movement to ban horse-drawn carriages has been taking hold for a while too, but at a much smaller pace than the accidents, and resulting victimization of the animals, that they cause, and with as many rocks on the way as the cobblestones that punish their hooves.
Actually, to say that they cause accidents is a gross misinterpretation, as if it’s not obvious that introducing a slow-moving vehicle pulled by a fully restrained animal, in the middle of some of biggest concentrations of speeding cars on earth, wouldn’t itself be an irreconcilable problem.
Opponents of such a brutal practice, that keeps causing horse fatalities and mishaps, thought they had a champion in New York City’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was elected on a platform supporting a ban on horse carriages. But, wouldn’t you know it? they were very wrong.
The mayor has postponed any decision on the matter to ‘later in the year’ (which can be read as, perhaps never), failing to recognize an opportunity to give his city a leadership role in an issue that seems to have the approval of all but one resident: Irish action hero actor Liam Neeson.
Despite similar movements to ban, or prevent from starting, horse-drawn carriage attractions in some cities of his native country, Neeson has been on record defending the tiny community of carriage drivers. Many a worthier cause wish they had these two heavy-weight champions on their side.
Despite the setback, the ban in the U.K. has the potential to first, be extended to all animals, and then to other countries too including, why not? the U.S. Since the advent of enterprises such as the Cirque du Soleil and others, which do not use animals, only a few remaining organizations still carry acts with them, many of which have been accused of animal abuse as one of the oldest, the Ringling Bros. has been in the recent past.
Circuses like it are running against a modern trend of valuing the work of well trained, and obviously willing, human athletes, and there’s been a healthy revival of showing amazing feats of physicality that do not involve the participation of any performer not sentient enough to give its consent.
A word about yet another segment of the ample philosophical discussion of how should we relate to animals, whether as our subordinates, forced to give their lives to our sustenance and entertainment, or rather as our partners in the upkeep of the planet: the reason for the existence of zoos.
As we get to learn more about animal intelligence and the conditions to which they thrive in the wild, it’s been increasingly harder to build an argument based on the rationale of keeping them in captivity, for as elaborate their enclosures may be and as humanely treated as zoos claim they are.
In fact, a disturbing number of incidents, when animal abuse in zoos was captured on tape, really attests to the contrary. And then there’s the even more complex issue of animal melancholia and depression, well documented in captivity to no one’s surprise. Even manipulative breeding programs have at times failed to guarantee the preservation of some genetic strains, research of which is crucial to define a zoo’s very reason to be.
And then there is the absurdly incongruous practice, albeit not as irrational as it may look, given the restrains of choosing such an animal research path, which is the selective killing of perfectly healthy ones, under the excuse of clearing room for new, more genetically diversified specimens.
The Copenhagen Zoo has provided last month one of the most glaring examples of this tremendous contradiction. It not just killed a healthy giraffe and gave its meat to be devoured by lions in front of a live audience of children, as it later killed four lions too. So much for genetic diversity.
Taken in this context, zoos are not far from private sanctuaries, which breed animals with no scientific claims, and wind up raising a homogeneous and vulnerable genetic pool, far from what natural conditions provide. The startling fact about these amateur animal parks, despite all the love and dedication some do involve in their foundation, is that there are now more wild animals living in them in the U.S., for instance, than in the wild.
The fact that many of such sanctuaries, here and elsewhere in the world, are built out of vanity only aggravates the problem, and clouds even further the argument that they may represent the only chance of survival for those animals involved, many rescued from, you guessed, abusive circuses.
But about zoos, they did fulfill an important role at the beginning of the century, and yes, part of it was to inculcate empathy on children about their existence and the threats to their survival. But that was when HDTV was not anticipated even on novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Research done in the past two decades, which offered us a deeper understand of elephants, and how their highly evolved matriarchy society operates, have began mining the argument that scientific research has to be done in the sterile, although controlled, environment of a zoo. There’s now a scientific consensus that there must be another way, and such forward thinking has determined an end altogether to elephants in captivity.
The same attitude towards other animals may soon follow this new understanding, but we shouldn’t expect all pieces to simply follow into place.
Since we’ve began ‘collecting’ animals for scientific curiosity and amusement, their natural habitats have been severely depleted, trade of animal parts have reached grotesque levels of cruelty, and a demographic explosion has pitted impoverished communities against preservation’s best interests.
We could end it with an edifying, thought-provoking, heart-warming, teachable-moment inducing quote, by any of the many geniuses of our race, who have meditated on this issue with depth, clarity and customary zeal. Ultimately, though, we don’t really believe much in words of a quote.
Rather, it’d be advisable to support a course of action that would ban circus animals, as those countries did, and any exhibit featuring some if not all live animals, as the world-class NY Bronx Zoo has done. Some would say, and stop eating them too, but, hey, not everyone can be Paul McCartney. Enjoy the spring break. WC


4 thoughts on “Curtain Raiser

  1. eremophila says:

    I’ve been reconsidering my relationship with animals for the past 7 years, and have certainly changed in my expectations of and to them. That said, I find it difficult to see my life without a close connection to animals. For the four years I was without a dog, I became one of those who wanted to stop and pat dogs I met in the street – it gave me a better understanding of how those I’d stopped for with my dog before she died, must have felt.
    While it’s dreadful about circus animals, and zoos, what about the domestic pets that are grossly overfed and under exercised by ‘doting’ owners? In the end, it all comes down to humans being humans……


  2. Wesley, another good post!!! No Brasil, onde muitas vezes a burguesia trata animais melhor do que gente (Figeiredo preferia o cheiro dos cavalos ao cheiro do povo) a gente realmente tem uma relacao complicada com os animais “domesticos” ou nao.


  3. I’ve written about circuses three times on my blog, in a way most people would call light-hearted. Nevertheless, in my own mind my intention was always to expose the hypocrisy most people display towards animals by anthropomorphizing them or simply exploiting them through exposing them to terror.

    Anji and I have a dog. Sammy is a great little animal tied to us in a sort of slavery. Without trying to apportion blame, or display a dislike of pets, Sammy is Anji’s, and I´d never own a pet. For him to lie at our feet, and be subject to our rules, doesn´t sit comfortably with me. But I like him.

    I see too many people using animals as child substitutes, expecting too much return for their investment.

    The guy next door to our flat suggested it was time to get rid of him recently, because he smells. And he meant have him ‘put down’. Sammy does smell awfully, in the human sense, despite all Anji´s efforts to keep him clean. Then again, a lot of old people smell, and aren’t as amusing as they used to be. I know, I’ve spent a lot of time with them.

    Circuses are still common in Spain, here in Conil sometimes we get two a year. The cruelty I see just around the big top disgusts me.

    As a a retired high-wire performer says in one of my short stories, after falling into a ring of lions:

    “We never thought about it like that. It was part of the job. It’s what people came to see. It wouldn’t have been the same without the possibility of seeing a few broken bones. The chance of a bit of blood being spilled. Watching a good mauling from one of the animals was well worth the price of a ticket. But it was the prospect of witnessing a mortality that really drew the crowds.”

    Old Miguel and the Circus.


    • colltales says:

      That’s touchingly honest, Bryan. I currently don’t live with any pets, and I’m more of a cat person, if there’s such a thing. But after having dedicated 22 years to my last two (and I tell, I couldn’t have figured my life then without them), I think I’m through having pets. Worse is when I’m in really need of a fix and have to resort to going to a pet shop to pet a cat. It breaks my heart every time, but I just can’t help it.
      Our relationship with pets and animals in general is fraught with some of the worst and some of the best parts of being a human, sometimes all at the same time. Can’t tell you how much I’ve learned with them about myself, but it wasn’t always pretty. Thanks for the input.


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