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, 23 September 2011

The Beauty of Reason by Anna Webb

HaflingerImage via Wikipedia

Once again a piece  by Anna Webb who is fast becoming the Queen of this blog. The plain common sense in her writing shines out, it makes editing very difficult but it does make for compulsive reading   

My dad is fond of a saying: “Under 30 if you are not a communist you have no heart. Over 30 if you are still a communist you have no brain”. Ignoring the politics, I broadly agree with the concept. Most people start out in life with dreamy ideals, and over time reality beats them into a completely different shape. That seems to be part of the natural process of growing up and gathering experiences, and, while giving up a utopia is sad, I can’t see any problem with it. What I do see a problem with is quite the opposite – people who hold ideals and ethics that make no practical sense, without any basis on reality, and which sometimes would result in very negative outcomes if they were carried out.

Let me give you an example. We instil in our children the ideal that “killing is evil”. So far, no problems. Over time, however, people tend to add corollaries and postscripts to this belief. For instance, “killing is evil, unless it’s in self-defence”, or “killing is evil, unless it’s carried out for humane reasons, for instance putting a suffering pet down”, or “killing is evil, unless I’m killing a parasite/disease/pest”. Of course, this process of ethical dilution can be carried out to extremes to approve of activities that most people would find objectionable, such as terrorism. However, most people adapt their ethics to real life without turning into monsters. Society helps us keep our values within a “normal” range by showing us the middle ground.

I suppose this could be classed as hypocrisy. You either hold a belief, or you don’t. However, I think it’s healthy. It is healthy to value reality above empty, lofty words. It is healthy to be flexible, following the best course of action, aiming to get the best results, rather than being held so rigidly by a belief system that we risk causing more harm than good. What is NOT healthy is to value ideals over reality – that’s how you get pogroms and terrorism.

I don’t normally get this philosophical. The incident that sparked me thinking this rather lofty stuff was quite innocuous. A vegan lady in London got involved in protesting against a circus with horses. She asserted the horses were being abused. She stated that the horses were made to “dance on their back legs which can lead to painful joint conditions due to putting too much strain on the two legs”. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s also nonsense.

Reality check. This is not horse ballet we’re talking about, but a period of less than 30 seconds where a horse is rearing and walking towards the trainer. Horses rear naturally when playing, fighting and mating – indeed it is essential to the production of more horses. No rearing, no foals, and if you don’t believe me Google it. For me the most amazing aspect of this very small part of a very big show is that the trainer’s face is literally inches away from the horse. Anyone who knows anything about horses will know that this is seriously dangerous, as a horse hoof in the head can kill. Horses know this – they are not stupid – and will rear at people to threaten or attack them. My placid little cob objected to the farrier, reared up and kicked a hole about a foot by half a foot into a stone wall. Would you stand in front of a rearing horse, night after night? Worse, would you put your life into the hands of an animal you have mistreated? And would a mistreated animal be in perfect physical form, with a gleaming coat and sparkling eyes?

It gets more surreal. When the protesting lady was asked if she had seen the show or the horses, she said she hadn’t, and NEVER would as she would NEVER co-operate with “animal abusers”. So, somebody who has never seen the horses in question, never seen the show, and is refusing to see either on ethical grounds, still feels the right to accuse the people involved of abuse. This is a triumph of ethics over reality, logic, and frankly even common sense.

It gets even worse if those ethics are carried to their logical conclusion. People shouldn’t impose their will on horses. No horses in shows, ok, but then to be fair we must also ban the Spanish School of Vienna, dressage, racing, eventing, and in fact all horse riding. Horses should live wild and free! Only there is not so much wilderness here, and horses are quite high-maintenance beasties. I can’t see the vast majority of horse people being willing to spend thousands of pounds every year to take care of animals that they can’t interact with. So where are all these “freed” horses going to go, and who will look after them?

The same applies to all farm and domestic animals. It’s all very well and good to feel sad about those lambs in the field that will become lamb chops, but – wakey wakey – if it wasn’t for the lamb chops, those lambs would not be there in the first place. Farmers would not keep and breed animals if there wasn’t something in it for them. We would not have safe, happy lambs growing into old age in their field – we’d have no lambs in the first place. By refusing to eat lamb, you might be saving this generation but you will be obliterating all lamb generations to come, and with it the habitats they help create.

Say you released all “captive” animals into the “wild”, assuming you can find any wild near you. Personally, I don’t believe that they would fare very well. We have evolved with domestic animals and they have evolved with us, so we’re now mutually dependent on each other. We can survive without each other, but neither party does as well – that’s what domestication is all about. Animals bred for thousands of generations to get food, water, grooming, shelter, medical care, etc. from humans are unlikely to suddenly go native and discover their inner wild animal. A stray shih-tzu doesn’t morph into a wolf.

As for the wild that is out there, well, it is unfortunately seriously out of whack. In case you haven’t noticed, for instance, we’re a bit short on large predators in this country. The released herds of domestic herbivores would not be controlled by predators, as they’re just not there. And yes we could reintroduce bears and wolves into London, but we still would not achieve some sort of fabulous return to nature, because WE’RE HERE. We’re here and here to stay, with our cars, roads, houses, etc. And – shock, horror – we’ve been here for quite a while, so maybe we have the same right to be here that horses, lambs, and cockroaches enjoy.

Unfortunately, you’ve got to stick to your ethics. Meat eaters are “serial killers” (and I quote from the very same lady). It doesn’t matter that it is natural for humans to eat meat - we’re omnivorous, not vegetarian, by nature – so we’re only following our insticts. Killing is evil and anyone who kills is evil, so let’s not breed any food animals. Incidentally, we must also learn to live with our headlice, bedbugs, and, for those with a more exciting life than me, crabs. Controlling animals is evil, so let’s release our pet poodles into the streets and see how they do. Worming meat cows would be the ultimate no-no – killing an animal to keep another animal that you’re planning to kill.

Yes, the results would be disastrous. Yes, this would be idiotic. Yes, most people would not be stupid enough to advocate this sort of extremism – but unfortunately, some do, and those are the ones who shout the loudest. Those are the ones that picket in front of a show they’ve never seen to “save” animals that are regularly on public display and inspected by vets, while hundreds of pets go mistreated. Those are the ones that wear posters showing old, foreign photos of chained, beaten bears in front of a modern British show with only horses and budgies, and don’t see the stupidity of their actions. Those are the ones that think that shouting abuse at families with children is ok, because it’s “for the cause”. That’s the beauty of extremism – the golden glow of self-righteousness seems to blur all the nasty, inconvenient details.

Call me hypocritical, but I refuse to let my ethics stop me from displaying a modicum of common sense. Before I fight against something, I want to know whether it is true, by checking out the facts with my own eyes. Before I advocate major widespread lifestyle changes, I want to know what the ultimate consequences would be. And before I tell people they ought to embrace their nits, I’m going to go and get my brain checked.

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