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The Circus

Once upon a time we knew no better. I went to see performing Orca at Windsor Safari Park as a kid and loved them. I used to have a choke chain on my dog, laughed at the PG Tips chimps, and would probably quite have liked to be a lion tamer myself. But attitudes change, we live and we learn.

There has been a slightly disturbing theme in the media recently: reintroducing the idea of performing animals in circuses, with a sense of warm nostalgia I find perplexing. The Guardian of all papers produced a warm piece on the good old days of performing animals, presenting their lion tamer Thomas Chipperfield as a loveable hero for animals. The One Show did a piece on them in July, potentially normalising even legitimising him and his performing big cats. But why? This isn't an unpopular political party who needs to be given a voice so you don't appear biased! And by chatting about it amicably, you give countless people the idea that going to this kind of circus might be quite a cool thing to do...

Radio Two did a light-hearted interview with Chipperfield last week. The interviewer gave him a bit of a ribbing, and suggested 'some people might find it all a little arcane', but the subject was generally dealt with in good-humoured BBC even-handedness. They may as well have been chatting to a Morris dancer or gurning champion... rather than to a dynasty synonymous with barbaric animal cruelty. Mary Chipperfield and her husband were convicted of 12 counts of beating an 18-month-old chimp with a riding crop, and kicking it in the back up to 15 times while holding its arm. Her husband was convicted for whipping a sick elephant. There are YouTube clips showing them brutally abusing a variety of animals, and one of their workers was jailed for beating an elephant with a pitchfork, shovel and iron bar. Noted biologist Dr Jane Goodall provided expert testimony in their court case, saying the animals were kept in 'an utterly inappropriate fashion,' and 'in fear and despair'. Whilst Thomas was not implicated in this case, just last year, covert filming showed his lions and cats kept in tiny cages, exhibiting stereotypical stress behavior, under newspaper headlines such as; 'Caged in Misery, the Lions and tigers in circus high school'! Most commentators expressed disbelief that could still go on here in the UK. According to Animal Defenders International, Chipperfield is only touring his show in Wales, as government documents show his facilities were drastically below standards required by English animal welfare. The animals live in a truck called 'The Beastwagon', with two tigers sharing a cage the size of a single car garage - less than a third of the minimum size for a single tiger to live in.

Photo Credit Copyright: Animal Defenders International

And yet the BBC volunteered the location where the circus could be found currently performing, giving lots of people an idea for somewhere fun to take their kids this weekend. Once Chipperfield had rung off, cash register ringing, Radio Two brought on someone to provide the alternative view. Instead of having a retort delivered by a scientist, conservationist or senior figure from the RSPCA (who utterly condemn the Chipperfields) they instead chatted with a member of the public who wistfully pronounced; "wild animals should be running free across the African savannah". It seems that some producer has mistakenly equated the issue of performing animals in traveling circuses with the issue of animals in captivity in general. This being the case, they decided Thomas Chipperfield deserved a voice... all in the interests of balance you understand.

But they are not the same thing at all. I posted a blog on this site not so long ago dealing with the complicated subject of animals in captivity. It is one that is the subject of considerable dialogue amongst people involved in the natural sciences. Some naturalists, zoologists and conservationists make a very good case for certain kinds of animal and safari parks. The ethical idea that all animals should only be in the wild is usually perceived as being quite extreme; philosophically justifiable, naïve in practise. Attenborough, Goodall, George Monbiot and the head of Peta could all sit down and have a decent discussion on the topic, all espousing slightly different points of view. But every one of them without exception would condemn old-fashioned traveling circuses with performing animals, and particularly the Chipperfields. And the BBC has just broadcast them to millions around the country, as if they should somehow be considered equal to the ZSL. THEY ARE NOT.

The key difference is again philosophical. The drive of modern natural history is to convince people to respect animals, to increase concern for their wellbeing and assert their right to dignity. The best modern zoos are focused entirely around a message of conservation for wildlife. They do all they can to provide environments that mimic their natural home, to provide enrichment, ever-larger enclosures, reduced socialized contact with humans. The message to the visitors is that these majestic animals have great powers and skills that should fascinate us, that we should appreciate them on their terms, and that we should want to do something to protect them in the wild. The ethos of the circus is exactly the opposite, forcing lions and (let's not forget endangered) tigers to perform cheap tricks for us in the circus ring, driven by the negative enforcement of the whip, chains and withheld food to demonstrate their servility to superior human masters... It is about humans dominating nature. About performing animals being forced to do alien tricks because they are frightened of being hit.

Chipperfield did a lot of justifying in the chat, something he is clearly used to doing. He talked about 'respect for his animals,' even suggested his work was 'conservation'. He mentioned that his lions live longer in their cages than they would do in their natural environment where they have often short and brutal lives. He even stated that they were better off; happier in their cages. Much of this smacks of desperation, none of it of scientific rigour or understanding. I wouldn't presume to quantify how animals are most happy, but objectively longevity is not a deciding factor. Most wild animals live longer in captivity. Battery hens on occasion live longer than their wild ancestor the red jungle fowl. Does that make them happier? Those who defend Chipperfield suggest he upholds a 300 year tradition, that 'kids love his circus', and that he 'clearly loves his animals,' but none of these things justify his cause. Bull fighting is an ancient tradition, the organ grinder may love his monkey, kids love burning ants under a magnifying glass. As we become civilised, we set our standards based on an ethical and moral code. Practises should not be maintained simply because they are tradition, or because we enjoy them.

Once upon a time we knew no better. I went to see performing Orca at Windsor Safari Park as a kid and loved them. I used to have a choke chain on my dog, laughed at the PG Tips chimps, and would probably quite have liked to be a lion tamer myself. But attitudes change, we live and we learn. We know what animals need to live low-stress lives, and we know the things that terrify them. The philosophy of wanting to subjugate wildlife through fear, to use it for cheap entertainment, is a throwback to the bad old days. And really, really old days. Performing animals in circuses has been a subject for angry protest since the 1960s.The RSPCA's position is clear; 'We don't believe animals should be subjected to the conditions of circus life. Regular transport, cramped and bare temporary housing, forced training and performance, loud noises and crowds of people are often unavoidable realities for the animals.' In 2012 animal welfare minister Lord Taylor announced there would be a ruling in 2015 to ban wild animals in circuses in England. Though this bill appears to have been stalled, this antiquated practice will inevitably soon be illegal. Good people have been battling for decades to get it to go away; I don't get why at the death, we suddenly feel the need to give it a voice again.

Steve Backshall will be embarking on his nationwide 'Wild World' theatre tour from 15 October - 15 November. To book tickets please visit

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