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miércoles, 16 de julio de 2008

The truth about circus animals

The use of animals in circuses is declining around the world. Especially since the increase of studies showing the damages caused to animals by the circus life. People are reacting to this information as well, and do not find it so palatable to watch animals performing tricks knowing the adverse conditions which the circus animals are living in.
  The welfare problem in circuses and zoos are physical, especially regarded to space and provision of secluded areas, social (adequate environment and social group), and psychological, resulting from physical and social problems.  The psychological difficulties manifest themselves in, for example compulsive pacing and stereotypies (which can also be found in humans suffering from some mental illness like autism), environmental vandalism, hyper aggression, self mutilation, chronic apathy and perversion of appetite.
   In circus animals in particular, the implications are that even well run circuses nonetheless involve some adverse welfare, almost by definition, because of constraints on space and environmental stimulus.  Since circuses often move frequently and the animal’s accommodation has to be easily transported: this places constraints on size and weight and thus on space allowance. When circuses are stationary, accommodation could be more spacious, but this is not done, partly for reasons of cost.
 Local authorities have great difficulties in controlling circuses since they move on very rapidly and there is little time for inspection and the necessary processing of papers.  Creamer & Phillips (1998), in a long thorough undercover investigation found horrifying catalogue of vicious cruelty, both physical and psychological. Much of the cruelty was by individuals and could not be said to be and inevitable part of circus activity.  They could only uncover this by spending long periods of time with the animals. Just like in humans with autism or schizophrenia one visit from the doctor is not enough to discover these mental illnesses produced by stress or boredom.

 Circus life is entirely inappropriate for wild animals and inevitably involves severe deprivation of essential freedoms.

The welfare issues for circus animals can roughly be divided into five aspects, namely: (1) accommodation, (2) transport, (3) training, (4) performance and (5) winter accommodation. To analyse these aspects on welfare-issues I will use the five liberties, as defined by the British animal welfare committee (Brambell 1965) as a framework. These liberties act as a guide-line for the European policy regarding intensively farmed animals to safeguard there welfare:
  1. Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition
  2. Freedom from discomfort due to environment
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. Freedom to express the normal behavioural characteristics peculiar to the species
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

It’s of interest here to distinguish between welfare-violation that can be prevented, for example not giving enough water (not giving enough water is a case of neglect) and unavoidable welfare-violation, like transport (the transportation of animals is inherent to the character of a circus). Unavoidable welfare violation can be a just cause to ban circuses.

Domestic animals can in general be kept in sufficient large enclosures. (However, one can speculate whether a circus-horse should have the freedom to trot). In general speaking, wild animals are more dangerous and more unpredictable. Therefore there are stricter rules to their accommodation. Especially primates, bears, elephants, lions and tigers have to pay a high price for freedom of movement; this limits their normal behaviour (freedom 4). Also enrichment is usually not possible: a chimpanzee likes to climb, but circus-accommodation lacks climbing-facilities. Through such privation many circus-animals display stereotypical or apathetic behaviour, which can be considered as mental sorrow (freedom 5).

As long as the duration of transport is within restricted range and the transport cages are adequate and comfortably equipped, some will argue that this is an acceptable aspect. Circus animals are often put on transport and it’s not known whether they get used to it. Each time the animals gets transported they have to get used to a new, for them hostile environment.

On the subject of teaching acts on animals there’s big controversy. Animal welfare studies show that circus animals have been trained by means of torture instruments. There are known, horrific cases to prove this. Moreover, with big wild animals it is of importance that an animal trainer creates a dominant position over his animals. Some degree of physical force seems to be unavoidable (freedom 3 & 5).

It is sometimes stated that circuses are more animal friendly than zoos are, because they at least seek distraction during their performances. However, then it is assumed that they enjoy performing. That assumption is unfounded. The acts are in general routinely and compulsive, which can cause boredom and even aversion (freedom 5).

Winter accommodation
The condition of the winter accommodation is most often poorly. For domestic animals it’s quite possible to accommodate them in good conditioned housing. For a number of animals, in particularly wild animals, winter accommodation is problematic, because they can not adjust to another climate. The animals are then kept in a small enclosure so the climatic-conditions can be controlled or they are kept outside where the climatic-conditions can not be controlled (freedom 2 & 4).

Much of the behaviour of captive animals is bizarre in the extreme. Animals that are deprived of their normal behaviour patterns appear to indulge in a variety of aberrant stunts: they may be aggressive towards other animals, defecate and make games with their faeces, masturbate, or damage themselves (birds sometimes pluck their own feathers). None of these peculiar pieces of evidence that captivity-let alone any direct cruelty in their training or management- strikes some animals badly will necessarily reveal them selves in lank fur or a dulled eye. They can easily be hidden inside a plump, sleek body which appears to be thoroughly hale. However, the creature could still be mad, neurotic or miserable.

We do not believe that animals and humans share every characteristic under the sun to be able to remember that human prisoners do not look obviously affected by their incarceration. But we know they are not happy. And the great difference between animals and humans that we do know about goes towards our having a clear requirement to be doubly respectful of them: It is we cannot find out from them what they want or feel.

*Stereotypy: Movimientos repetitivos o ritualisticos como simples movimientos de cabeza o del cuerpo lado a lado, o movimientos mas complejos como marchar de un lado a otro o cruzarse de pies.

  • Broom, D.M. & Johnson, K. G., 1993. “Stress and animal welfare”. Dodrecht: Kluwer academic publishers

  • Creamer, J & Phillips, T., 1998, “The ugliest show on earth: the use of animals in circuses”. London: animal Defenders.

  • Bryant, J. M., 1979, “animal exploitation in human recreation”. Sussex: Centaur Ltd.

  • Gellatley, J., 2000, “Born to be wild”. London: Sage publications.

Javier Corvalan Gazzolo
Bsc (hons) Animal behaviour and wildlife biology
Anglia Ruskin University