Changing times: With a legal ban on the use of wild animal acts in UK circuses impending, Jonathan Brown goes behind the scenes at one of only two left in the UK to get to the heart of the debate.
Behind the big top at Circus Mondao – one of only two licensed animal circuses in the UK – zebras, camels and reindeer are roaming to the disgust of animal rights campaigners.
At its current resting place at Thorpe Lane, Tingley, there are Shetland ponies tethered to the circus tent, camels tethered in the fields, while its seven horses are split between airy temporary stables and makeshift paddocks to keep them separated from the freely wandering elderly zebra ‘Zebedee’.
By any means it’s a strange, if not slightly unnatural, sight to see at fields between Leeds and Wakefield nevertheless the animals seem contented and oblivious to the legal and moral storm that surrounds Circus Mondao’s very existence.
Next month draft legislation to enforce an outright ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, which could eventually come into force by December 2015, will have its crucial second reading amid increasing public protests.
Touring the circus on its eighth visit to rural Tingley in as many years, a vast convoy of 17 trucks, cars and caravans hauled around the country by a 30-strong workforce nine months of the year is gearing up for its next show.
We’re led around the site by veteran ringmistress Petra Jackson as Romanian gymnasts warm up in the big top and the animals are given time to relax outside. She is immediately on the defensive. “Have a look at where our animals live – you can’t believe everything you read on the internet,” she said. “It’s very hard to get our voice across. They are not kept in a shoebox under the bed, they’re grazing freely with fresh food and fresh water.”
It’s not surprising that she is on her guard. Life on the road with a modern day animal circus consists of a relentless stream of protests and media criticism outside of daily performances and weekly travel.
But having entered circus life aged 16 to train and care for dogs and ponies, Ms Jackson is used to the pressure. She has spent 22 years in the industry and joined Circus Mondao nine years ago.
Forthright in her view that all her animals live fulfilling lives, she is adamant that traditional circus is by no means the “Victorian relic” campaigners suggest.
“The people who come and see the show don’t say it’s outdated – it’s not what the general public are saying,” she said.
“The Great British public want to be able to make their own decision about what they want to see. If they didn’t want to see animals perform in the circus they wouldn’t come to see us and we would be out of business.”
In spite of her defiance, the evidence suggests the days of UK animal circus acts are numbered – even aside from the looming change in the law.
From 1998/9 the number of circuses practicing with wild animals in the UK fell from 20 to four in just five years, with dwindling audiences and high-profile animal cruelty cases contributing to the fact that only two such circuses exist today.
Circus Mondao, with its collection of over 30 mainly grazing stock, and Peter Jolly’s Circus, which features five lions and tigers, have rarely been out of the headlines as a result.
And having worked with big cats herself, Ms Jackson is hardly damning of their use. “The natural environment out there isn’t what it used to be with deforestation and there is so much more poaching and hunting going on,” she said. “People don’t realise they (big cats) relax a lot in the daytime and what they do in the circus is no different to what they do in the wild – they jump and leap from one rock to another, it’s just a trained movement.”
She argues that most circus animals are “captive bred” and are used to a circus routine which causes them no harm, meaning animals such as Mondao’s zebra and one of its mules have easily outlasted their predicted life expectancies.
“The tide of opinion is against us. There’s no scientific evidence against us. We’ve been inspected by the Government, they have licensed us and all the inspections that have happened previously didn’t find anything wrong with the animals in the circus, it’s just that the animal rights people don’t think it’s right to have them in captivity.”
Nationwide around 200 local authorities, including Leeds City Council, have pre-empted a wider ban by refusing to warrant animal circuses using council-owned land.
The arrival of Circus Mondao and Peter Jolly’s Circus in West Yorkshire last year attracted the attention of protestors in Otley and Queensbury, Bradford, last year, and Circus Mondao’s visits to Thornton, Calverley and Tingley so far have attracted similar responses from the likes of Leeds Animal Protection and Bradford and Calderdale Animal Friends.
Meanwhile Animal Defenders International has called on residents to avoid the circus as wild animal acts are an “outdated practice which is overwhelmingly opposed by the public”.
Jan Creamer, president of ADI, said: “Most people are now aware of the terrible suffering of wild animals in circuses and shun such acts. A national ban has been promised but, until it is brought in, these animals are forced to perform silly tricks and endure conditions which deny them their natural behaviours. We urge local people not to support circus suffering.”
Recent high profile cases of mistreatment have scarred the perception of animal circuses for many. Circus owner Bobby Roberts was given a three-year conditional discharge in 2012 for mistreating the UK’s last circus elephant.
The conviction came after a groom was secretly filmed striking the 58-year-old elephant, called Anne, with a pitchfork in early 2011.
Nevertheless animal cruelty and circuses are not necessarily intertwined. Both remaining UK animal circuses are regularly vetted and have been licensed by DEFRA.
In fact after publishing the Wild Animals in Circuses Report which looks set to bring about the ban on wild animal acts, committee chair Anne McIntosh MP said “there is no overwhelming welfare case for a ban on wild animals in travelling circuses”, stating there are already laws in place to deal with welfare abuse.
But whether wild animal acts are at all necessary or viable remains debatable. Either way, the impending ban looks set to spell the end of a 150-year-old industry.
Ms Jackson added: “We don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s very true. We don’t think like to think about it.”
HISTORY OF ANIMAL CIRCUSES IS CHEQUERED
The use of animals in the circus dates back around a century and a half.
Prior to travelling circuses and the advent of public zoos, those wanting to lay their eyes on exotic wild animals would head to fairs.
Before animals were exhibited, travelling shows were likely to be exhibiting people with physical abnormalities, regarded at the time as ‘freaks of nature’.
From the 19th Century animals were taken on tour as displays of exotic creatures before they were combined with traditional circus shows – the first true animal acts involved horses.
US circus performer Isaac Van Amburgh is recognised as the first wild animal trainer in circus history, having entered a cage with several big cats as early as 1833.
Equestrian circus became a world phenomenon during the 1800s, with travelling circuses pitching up American-style big top tents from the mid 1830s.
In Europe, the travelling circus and menagerie reached its peak between the two world wars.
But while exotic animals once drew large crowds, the animal rights movements of the 1960s onwards pressured circuses to re-think their links with animals.
Shows began to present circus in a more artistic light, while many circuses began to end or amend their association with animal acts.
Although not a travelling circus, German-American duo Siegfried & Roy who performed with white lions and tigers in Las Vegas ended their 13-year stage careers after Roy was attacked and nearly killed by a seven-year-old male tiger named Montecore in 2003.
Such high profile accidents were added to by cases of ill treatment among some of the more unscrupulous circuses and began to shape perceptions.