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

Born Free Killers? by John Dineley

FeraeImage via Wikipedia
John Dineley strips away the appeals to nature and emotion as well as the attractive veneer of the silver screen and pseudo-reality of the natural history documentary, and takes a closer look at the facts surrounding the celebrated releases of animal from captivity to their wild state. 

We all love a happy ending to a story.  Don’t we?  It’s that feel good factor and with animal stories even more so.  It is however sadly true that most modern urban humans have very little idea about the wild world or the behaviour of wild animals and how we - for what ever reason – can dramatically affect these animals behaviour even when the intentions are considered honourable. 

In an earlier blog the term Disneyfication was used to describe the rather deluded relationship many people have in the way they view the natural world and our relationship with it.  Disney is, of course, not the only ones guilty of presenting animals both real and imagined in a stilted and anthropomorphic way, and whilst many of us certainly realise that “The Lion King” is a cartoon and that lions don’t talk or philosophize sometimes so-called "true stories" develop myths of their own.

Perhaps one of the most famous contemporary wild animal stories that have gripped the imagination of many was the story of “Elsa” the lioness which went on to result in an aware winning movie “Born Free” based on book by Joy Adamson.  It was in 1956 that Adamson’s husband George (an African game warden) rescued three lion cubs after killing their mother who attacked him and another ranger.  The cubs were hand-reared by Joy Adamson and eventually two were sent to Rotterdam Zoo, but the remaining cub, called “Elsa”, was retained and efforts were made to release her back into the wild.  After considerable effort “Elsa” was considered to have been successfully rehabilitated back to the wild even to the point where she gave birth to three cubs, which is detailed in Joy Adamson’s book “Living Free”. 

“Elsa” died in 1961 of allegedly a blood born disease Babesia felis.  Unfortunately her three cubs now named “Jespah”, “Gopa” and “Little Elsa” began to cause problems for the Adamsons with reports that they were killing the livestock of local farmers.  Fearing the animals would be killed they were caught and translocated to Serengeti nationalpark in Tanzania.  The fate of the cubs remains unclear although “Little Elsa” was reportedly observed by George Adamson after an extensive search. This observation appears in his 1968 book “A Lifetime With Lions”.

But not everyone believes that this was a success story as presented.  It is clear that there were problems with the cubs.  Why else would they have been caught and moved?  However, more disturbing allegations have been made that not only her cubs but “Elsa” herself, once free and out of the control of the Adamsons', was a problematic animal due to her limited fear of humans.

 Read More HERE

Since “Elsa” there have been a couple of high-profile reintroduction attempts of human habituated wild animals. Perhaps the most famous (and at the conservatively estimated cost of 2 million dollars possibly the most expensive) is that of “Keiko” the killer whale who became famous featuring in the 1992 film “Free Willy”, a fictional tale of a young boy's attempts to release killer whale back to the wild from a theme park. 

The film generated much concern for “Keiko” who was captured from the wild in 1979 and eventually ended up in a Mexican theme park.  After a campaign by various animal rights groups and factions to seemingly replicate art and to release “Keiko” back into the wild, the whale was moved to improved purpose-built facilities at the Oregon Aquarium.  In 1988 “Keiko” was moved to a sea-pen in Iceland.  In 2002 “Keiko” was released, but rather than integrating back with wild whales he swam to the coast of Norway seeking out human company and begging for food.  He died in December 2003 in the Norwegian Taknes fjord.  Keiko never fully integrated into the wild and continued to seek human company and was still receiving care and support from keepers due to the failure of his reintroduction program up to the time of his death.

"The release of Keiko demonstrated that release of long-term captive animals is especially challenging and while we as humans might find it appealing to free a long-term captive animal, the survival and well being of the animal may be severely impacted in doing so."

This leads to the interesting question as to whether releasing human habituated animals back to the wild is actually humane or in the best interests of the animals concerned. Critics of those who manage wild animals in human care often cite that many zoological establishments claim that the reintroduction of endangered species back to the wild from captive-bred species is one objective of zoos.  Therefore, to voice concern about release projects such as “Elsa” and “Kieko” are hypercritical.   Unfortunately, like the issue between animal-rights and animal-welfare there is some muddled thinking going on here.

The release of animals from captive breeding programmes to enhance or re-establish wild species populations is centred on the concern for the species as a whole not the welfare of individuals.  In fact, some members of the group of animals that are re-introduced may well die during such a process.  The prime aim is to hopefully establish a viable self-sustaining population.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature set out guide lines for such projects and also has a Re-introduction Specialist Group for advice on such matters.  It is interesting that they state in their guidelines:

"Care should be taken to ensure that potentially dangerous captive-bred animals (such as large carnivores or primates) are not so confident in the presence of humans that they might be a danger to local inhabitants and/or their livestock."

Moreover, in handling animals that are to take part in such project great care is taken not to habituate them to humans as once this has taken place it is extremely difficult to remove as both the example of “Elsa” and “Kieko” demonstrate.

Therefore, it can be seen why welfare releases on long-term human habituate wild animals may seem a good idea to humans, but it is probably not in the best interest of the welfare of the animals concerned.


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