Last night I went for the second time to the circus. My first visit was in 1961 and all I now recall is a strongman gripping rope in teeth to lift a donkey in a harness. The show must have been low key as circuses go, not only for being on waste ground in a West Riding village now swallowed by Sheffield, but because if there’d been tigers or elephants it’s these I’d remember, rather than bloke and donkey.
But back to last night. As we approached Zippos Circus in Sheffield’s Endcliffe Park at the end of our road – this, and an opening night price of £7.50, is what drew me – we were met by animal righters. Some gave out leaflets, others held placards. One told us that if we loved animals we’d turn round and go home.
What, moi? After shelling out £7.50 plus £1.50 ‘booking fee’? Love has its limits!
I should say these protesters were calm and, outwardly at least, respectful – not for them the righteous fury outside Huntingdon Labs or abortion clinic, or the ire of picketing strikers with kids to feed and clothe, and livelihoods on the line.
One leafleteer bade me a good evening as I passed.
I was spellbound by the high wire acts. By the motorbikers exploiting centifugal force, heedless of the fact physicists say there’s no such thing. By knives thrown at smiling ladies strapped to a spinning wheel.. I was close to tears at the antics of a clown who onscreen would have left me cold (the humour and pathos of live slapstick can be piercing) and wide eyed at a Rubber Man who left every yoga enthusiast I’ve seen, the late BKS Iyengar included, looking arthritic. All of this racked up tenfold by the floodlit abracadazzle, audience involvement and orchestrated handclapping to tunes from an age less blasé. I don’t say all of life is on show at the Big Top but things came close enough last night for me to see why such truisms are put about.
And the animals? One class act featured cossacks from Kazakhstan. What do cossacks mean – other than vodka, counter-revolution and silly dancing? Horses of courses! Magnificent animals cantering round the ring, now and then rearing up as their riders – colourfully clad men and women of convincingly Eurasian countenance (no, I didn’t sneak out the back after to check for Brummie accents) – wowed us with agility and equestrian acumen. The horses looked as well cared for as enlightened self interest would demand and, to my admittedly inexpert eye, calm.
The only other act involving animals was also the only one that came close to boring me. It had budgies in feathered formation, one towing a pal along on a toy truck. On a 0-5 scale of animal abuse, where zero gets a Francis of Assisi Medal of Honour; 5 an Abu Ghraib for Animals Award, I’d give this act a 1, the horses 0.5.
But what do I know?
Back home I studied the leaflet handed out by the picketing outfit – Captive Animals’ Protection Society (CAPS) – and visited their website. It says:
We believe the use of animals in circus performances is not only damaging to the welfare of those individuals involved but also sends a damaging message to the general public, particularly children. By presenting animals as performers in the big top, it teaches children that animals can be manipulated for our amusement. It suggests animals have no right to be treated as individuals who think and feel for themselves. It fails to recognise that they have their own needs to be met, for their own purposes.
Circuses often travel, meaning that animals are kept in rudimentary housing which cannot meet their most basic welfare needs. Housing for lions might be the back of a lorry. Elephants spend their nights shackled by their legs. Horses and zebra live in makeshift stalls in tents.
A horse’s home is not the big top
Wild animals are forced to perform unnatural tricks. Tigers are made to jump through hoops and elephants taught to stand on their heads. Domesticated animals such as horses are forced to carry numerous people on their backs and perform “dances” which puts dangerous pressure on their joints and ligaments, risking long-term health damage.
Tigers, elephants, horses, dogs and other animals do not choose to join the circus. Please support us in our work to free them from the big top.
I’m agnostic. I don’t know enough, and CAPS does little to enlighten me. What are we to make of the claim that children are being taught ‘that animals can be manipulated’? (Its qualifying ‘for our amusement’ may rescue it from inconsistency with any position short of veganism, but only if we define amusement narrowly enough to exclude such products of animal exploitation as ice cream and honey.) Such assertions – others being that a horse’s place is not in the big top, and the vague allusion to ‘individuals who think and feel for themselves’ – are too airy to be useful. The only specific claims are of life on the move and ‘makeshift stalls’, and even here there’s no detail, far less evidence, on the harm done by Zippos to horse and budgie. And what are we to make of ‘unnatural acts’? I’ll set to one side my wariness at the u-word and its blood-soaked history, to focus on facts rather than judgments vicarious and value laden. Is inciting a horse to rear up on hind legs, which I guess it would otherwise do only if startled, a form of abuse? Do those budgie performances, doubtless achieved using the methods of BF Skinner, put the birds under egregious stress? Search me. More to the point, search the CAPS site and tell me what I missed.
I don’t want to draw accusations of ‘whataboutery’. Though that’s an allegation often wide of the mark, such as when double standards are being pointed out, I accept that a focus on animal cruelty need not indicate indifference to human suffering. (Indeed, a logical case can be made for linking the two, though the empirical case is trickier.) I’ll refrain therefore from insisting on CAPS saying where it stands on zero hour contracts, terrorising the middle east in our name, and decades of thermonuclear brinksmanship in Washington to cheers in London. If it supplies solid evidence that what I saw last night, and presumably holds for all Zippos performances, is cruel, well, I won’t promise to stand outside the Big Top with an armful of leaflets – there’s only so much you can do with one lifetime – but will forego future visits.
(There are of course situations where we presume guilt until innocence is proved. And there are of course folk – I’m not one – who’d say this is precisely such a situation.)
Truth be told, last night’s show would still have been pretty damn good without the animals. It would have lost those magnificent horses and splendid riders, but what does that tell us? Only that Zippos would need an equally thrilling act in its place. If the world’s most renowned circus, the Moscow State – which at home though not on tour features animal acts – can captivate audiences the world over with only human performers, I dare say Zippos can do likewise. I dare say too, however, that while such a show may be as good or better, the punters will take some convincing.