This is incredibly divisive ground. There are those who see animals in circus as an important tradition, a preservation of our heritage. The concept of animals beaten regularly for the entertainment of others is incredibly evocative of emotion, however, and has been quick to take the world by storm. But there are not just two sides to this debate. I argue that there are at least three.
Those who are for these animals performing in circuses not only see the tradition as an incentive for profit, but truly believe that the animals are being done a service. As the late Reg Bolton argues in his 2001 essay, animal liberation is, in some ways, a fantasy. We see ourselves as a higher species and therefore charge ourselves with the protection and conservation of ‘lower’ species (despite, and in reality because of, the fact that we are their major threat). This leads to zoos, wildlife parks and the like. The argument Reg presents is that the circus is a better, if not ideal, arena for conservation. Animals are cared for, bred, displayed to increase awareness, and, unlike in many zoos, continually mentally stimulated.
I am not particularly one for the continuation of traditions for their own sake. It is my firm belief that cultural enrichment will continue, with new traditions and avenues created into the future. However that is just my opinion. There are most certainly those who view animals in circuses as an important part of our cultural heritage. This cannot be ignored, in the same way that it is detrimental to ignore the cultural traditions of all other peoples.
Then there are those who wholeheartedly oppose the use of animals in circuses. There are various reasons for this. First and foremost in the world’s consciousness is animal abuse. Animal rights activists the world over fight circuses over this point, and it is an issue which inspires incredible passion. The image of a poor, defenseless elephant beaten into submission strikes a chord in the hearts not only of human rights activists, but humans everywhere- as it should. There are flaws, however, both in this image and in the reaction inspires.
First and foremost, the abuse of circus animals does not pay off. If animals were treated in the manner that PETA so fully condemns, it is unlikely that they would perform at all. These circuses would cease to make profit, and become swiftly bankrupt. There is, of course, the exception which proves the rule, just as pet owners or zoo managers can be cruel to their charges- alas, the result of these cases is not the de-legalization of pet ownership.
The other problem with this image is the simple truth that most circuses today do not have animals of any kind (other than human). They either cannot afford to or have no wish to. Circus has incredible benefits in and of itself, and it is a shame to see community and contemporary circuses harmed by the reputation of circuses that do have animals (propagated by animal rights activists who do not understand the wholly diverse nature of circus).
The remaining issues with animals in circuses are more subtle. Whether it is right or wrong for animals to perform for the benefit of audiences and circuses, I can not say. I also cannot judge the psychological effects of a large animal such as an elephant being confined to close quarters, and whether travelling is of benefit or detriment.
And so we come to the third side. The world as it stands, it seems, is not fit to accept wild animals in circuses, and perhaps this is for good reason. The exhibition of domesticated animals such as dogs and horses, however, may be a perfect compromise, especially when compared to dog and horse shows and racing. In the rush to condemn all animal circuses, rational compromises such as this are cast by the wayside. It is difficult to speak in a calculated way about an issue which evokes such a strong emotional response. The trivialization of the circus is no help, either. Despite the wave of ‘new circus’ which has been gathering momentum across the world for years now, the greater public is still caught up in the image of the traditional circus of the past. The opinion held by many on circuses is almost a throwback to the days when the travelling acrobats and troubadours had to do so against the law, and public media does not help. Articles that deal with the circus, such as this one by Vice, are regularly full of circus puns and cliches. A large portion of the world simply does not take circus seriously either as a form of art or entertainment, and as a result opinions are formed not by thought but by emotion. A compromise, therefore, is not a strong enough image to be taken up by the social consciousness, whether or not it is the best solution.
In areas which have begun to ban animal performance within circuses, the elements of tradition and cultural history which come with it should not be ignored. Neither should the financial reliance many place on animal performance. If animals, or at least ‘wild&@#8217; animals, are to be expelled from circuses, it must be through a process which takes into account these issues and hears those directly involved. Whether this is a gentle phasing out or a ban on the purchase of new animals, a solution is necessary. A solution that reaches beyond emotions, and is shaped by thought.