Your Guide to the Reality of Animal Circus

"The academic panel concluded that there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments" - Executive Summary of the DEFRA Circus Working Group 2007

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Friday, 15 July 2011

Lies, Damn Lies and Internet Opinion Polls (Part 1)

A percent sign.Image via WikipediaWhen the Radford Report  delivered its verdict on animals in circuses in 2007 after the implementation of the Animal Welfare Bill 2006 many naively thought that the hysteria could be quelled and rationalism could prevail. The problem is that humans are not rational animals. The circus issue is suitably emotive, a pure animal rights one (as opposed to animal welfare) and its a very tempting target for those who raise funds on the back of political matters. A government "consultation" on animals in circuses was initiated between  21st December 2009 and 15th March 2010. This pretty much took the form an opinion poll. The result of this poll has been banded around as anything from 92% to 97% in favour of a ban on animals in circuses.

The result to anyone who has not got some vested interest in supporting a ban is incredulity. The laws of supply and demand just simply do not support this supposed popular opinion. Circus is not a religion or a charity and has enormous overheads. Just stop and think about the running costs for a moving performance company that is constantly on the road, living on site, and you even have to supply your own venue, lighting sound, props, rigs and work vehicles. That's before you get to the running cost of the animals, which have to be fed, housed, bedded and inspected/treated by vets. Oh yes and you have to pay the staff.  It receives no funding than from the pockets of consumers and no tax benefits of any shape or form. And yet, despite there only being a very small number of animal circuses in existence in the United Kingdom, they still exist. Surely this fact alone should be enough to bring such a ridiculous figure into disrepute.

However, if that doesn't quite convince you then please take a look at Rona Brown of PAWSI's (Perfoming Animals and Welfare Standard International) list of reason why the poll and consultation process was seriously flawed:

a.  The period of the consultation was during the non touring circus year when circuses return to their home base and take a break until Easter time. Because of this circuses had no access to their clientèle of appreciative audiences.

b. The effect of choosing this period of time can be seen in the governments  own admission that they received only 12,907 responses out of a total  population of 60 million in the UK.

c. 2,231 of these were postcards which were part of a campaign by an animal  welfare organisation which consisted of some of the questions asked.

d. 9,390 were replies to an on line electronic questionnaire which the circus audiences would have been entirely unaware as the circuses had no contact  with them during this period.

e. The remaining 286 were genuinely sent in by British public.

f. The animal welfare organisations then ran a campaign stating that 94% of the British public want a ban.  Whereas it was 94% of the public who responded to the poll who pressed yes for a ban not 94% of the British public.

g. The 94% of the 12,907 responces would only actually account for 0.02% of the UK population.

Electronic questionnaires have become increasingly popular for those wishing to add supposed extra credence to their argument, campaign or product. They are flawed for many reasons, which I hope will come to light in the next instalment of this series. However, for now I will leave you will a more general overview of the issue with electronic opinion polls, a problem that has its roots back to the earliest recoding of statistics and their use in arguments. At this point, I would like to add, that I am not opposed to the recording and use of statistics, but that it pays to be aware of their misuse. No stranger to seeing numbers used to confuse and convince in the name of nonsense, here is Ben "Bad Science" Goldacre's view on the nefarious use of statistics: The Huff and Public opinion has moved...

UPDATE August 2013

Public Opinion: What Happened to 94.5 per cent?

Astley's Legacy was formed to counter the misinformation and propaganda spread by animal rights activists. As well as fighting the corner for circus animals and their trainers, we are here to promote and celebrate the cultural heritage of circus in general, and especially in the country of its birth - Great Britain. For more information please see our Facebook group
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