First published in the Guardian on 9/7/2013
The suggestion by a committee of MPs on Tuesday that zebras, camels and several other wild species are appropriate in travelling circuses will cause dismay, outrage and some measure of agreement.
Whether transportation causes animals unacceptable stress, or circuses represent an environment ripe for abuse, can be argued back and forth. But why does a debate about this even exist?
There is an eternal tension between humans and the rest of the animal world. Our existence relies on some measure of exploitation. Animals are routinely killed and enslaved to further the human purpose. And, apart from cases of inhumane treatment, much of this relationship has a necessary evil argument in its favour.
We engage in these ethical debates, and sometimes fall on one side or the other, every time we pull on a leather jacket or eat a leg of lamb. But where does the line between essential and unnecessary get drawn? Somewhere, I would say, around travelling circuses.
Travelling conditions for animals in circuses cannot be as good as not travelling at all. An animal cannot be abused in a circus if it isn’t there. This is a problem that comes with a fairly simple solution.
There is no compelling human interest argument here. Just our insatiable desire to be entertained.
It’s important to consider the prospects of the operators of these institutions. Two of them still exist in Britain and they hold licences for 21 animals between them. This is their way of life and undoubtedly there are entertaining aspects to their shows.
But sometimes you get caught on the wrong side of history ploughing an archaic furrow and then it’s time to innovate or relocate. Plenty of circuses now exist animal-free. Couldn’t the government spend the money set aside for regulating these operators on helping them to hire strikingly talented, well-remunerated humans to entertain crowds and reinvigorate the spectacle?
The argument that circuses give children the opportunity to see animals that are exotic and special is true. And they surely display certain species’ physical prowess. But this arena also encourages children to view animals in a decontextualised and subordinate way. There is little educational value here such as exists in zoos.
We should be presenting the natural world to our children as something supra-human and untameable. How can they value an animal as wild and supreme when it performs, no matter how impressively, simply for giggles?
To call these animals “wild” is a misnomer. In this context we define wild as anything not normally domesticated in Britain. But let’s not kid ourselves, this is a caricature of wildness. A bit of casual, family-friendly barbarism in which we are encouraged to subjugate principle for the sake of entertainment.
So next time the circus comes to town, save your money, buy a Life on Earth DVD and settle in with the kids to be spellbound by what is truly the greatest show on Earth.