THE BLOG

Things NOT to Do When You Are 11¾ - Or Ever Two: Visit a Circus Where Animals Perform

11/09/2014 11:52 BST | Updated 10/11/2014 10:59 GMT

In the spot light, under the big top, a baby elephant balances on a red and white striped ball. He can't take his eyes off the person holding the metal hook - for he performs under threat of punishment. His fear is that the elephant hook will, yet again, be shoved into his sensitive skin.

At Cole Brothers Circus, in the US, Hugo was separated from his mother when he was just one year old (baby circus elephants are often taken from their mothers while they are still suckling as the smaller they are the easier they are to control ). Hugo's nights were spent alone in a circus truck. During the day he was separated from the other elephants, including his mother, by electric wire. He is now three years old and his life continues to be as far from natural as it is possible to imagine. Recent photographs show him with his head held low, looking thin, gaunt and utterly miserable.

If Hugo were in his natural environment he would remain close to his mother while the herd walked many miles a day. When the elephants stop at watering holes to bathe he would play with the other calves while the adults made sure the calves were safe. He would be comforted by physical contact, for elephants are highly demonstrative: they touch with their trunks, ears, tails, tusks, feet and, when they lean against each other, their whole body.

For circus elephants the contrast could not be more extreme. Tethered 90% of the time, treated with casual disdain at best and wilful violence at worst, the stress of their deprivation is evident in the way they behave. Some nod their heads or step from side to side in endless repetition. When humans behave like this their actions are described as symptoms of a nervous breakdown.

It's not just elephants. The variety of animals that are forced to perform in circuses is large: alligators, apes and bears; birds, camels, crocodiles; foxes, kangaroos, giraffes; lions and llamas; monkeys, raccoons, reindeer; sea lions, tigers and zebra.

All these are wild animals and they are all very different from each other. Yet, despite these differences, they are kept in the same conditions without any thought or understanding of their diverse needs.

But what they do have in common is the effect on their physical and mental health from a life of perpetual distress: the noise, the lights, the shouting; the constant travel, the unremitting loading and unloading; the frustration and perpetual fear. In 'beast wagons' they have scarcely room to move; they have nowhere to shelter from cold or heat; and no way of escaping from the things that terrify them. These animals are just as affected as Hugo even though our empathy for them - and consequently our compassion - is often not so strong, particularly if we fail to see them as individuals. But the signs of stress are no less serious. Some sway. Some pace. Some bite their cage bars. Some lick the wagon walls. Some chew the air. It depends on the species.

Dominance is key to training. If it were not for the physical restraints - the electric shocks, the goads, the whips, the drugs - monkeys and bears would not race each other on bicycles; chimps would not smoke cigarettes; tigers would not jump through burning hoops; and alligators would not hold back from biting a trainer's head placed in their mouths.

The first country to ban wild animals in circuses was Bolivia, in 2009. Although the list of animal-free circuses is growing there are still thousands of travelling companies all over the world where wild animals are forced to perform anthropomorphic stunts.

In April 2013 the UK government pledged to ban animals in circuses in England (but not in Scotland or Wales) by the end of 2015.

Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick's Bill to ban the use of wild animals in circuses is to have its second reading next Wednesday, September 17. Only with sufficient support from MPs will it go to the next stage - the committee stage. (Getting a bill passed is a lengthy process. Not for nothing is a bill's seemingly endless toing and froing between the House of Commons and House of Lords is known as 'ping pong'. Support throughout is crucial. Only when amendments have been approved does a bill receive royal assent and become an Act of Parliament).

Clearly getting MPs to support Jim Fitzpartrick's Bill is vital. It already has the backing of a host of celebrities including Judi Dench, Ricky Gervais and Brian Blessed. You could join them by writing to MPs and by signing petitions (easily done at www.captiveanimals.org) and by getting as many other people as you can to join you.

But that doesn't mean don't go to circuses. Rather, go to those where the performers are human: tightrope walkers, trapeze artists, clowns, jugglers, contortionists, acrobats, fire-eaters, magicians, musicians and dancers - the whole razzmatazz - and all far, far more amazing than the pathetic tricks of captive animals.