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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Sunday, 11 September 2011

Dreaming of Bears by Anna Webb

Line art drawing of a black bear.Image via Wikipedia

A piece of beautiful writing with some extraordinarily insightful comments from Anna Webb 

Dreaming of bears

As a young child in the 70s, I remember going to Disney matinees early on a Sunday. These were the days before videos (in fact for me these were the days before colour television) so watching cartoons on the big screen was a huge treat. My favourite bit, however, were the short animal documentaries they used to show at the start. I was too young to remember the details, but some images I will remember forever. A giant bird of prey (eagle?) taking a deer right up into the sky, to drop it to its death. Raccoons like naughty, furry elves. Seemingly endless hills covered in pine forests. For a city child, this was a different world – probably depicted quite inaccurately for show, admittedly, but magical nonetheless. Watching those movies gave me a love for nature and conservation that I don’t think I would have developed otherwise, purely because there was no nature in my life – I was surrounded by concrete. The movie I loved above all others, the one that I wished for every time even though I’d seen it a million times already, the one that made me squeal with delight when it came on, was the one about the bears.

Bears, doing bear things. Scratching on trees, looking for food, growing up. I don’t know what it is about bears, but got into my head then, and they’ve never left. As I got older any movie, cartoon, storybook, tale about bears would have my full attention. Russian tales of bears and orphans making their own little family. And yes, teddy bears also featured. So, maybe I wasn’t clued up on the reality of bearhood, but I was definitely bear mad.

The sad thing is that I had never seen a real bear. My childhood world was full of bear stories, pictures, movies, but where had all the bears gone?

Well, I’m told they can’t be in zoos, because “zoos are no match to the original and natural habitat of the big animals, who enjoy great freedom and openness in the wild” ( They are not dancing in the streets and outside cafes, which is just as well because “almost all dancing bears are made to suffer a lot of physical pain, as all of them have a hole pierced through their lips, nose, or palate through which a rope or a chain runs” ( And they are not in circus, because “circus bears sometimes have their noses broken while being trained. Most of the times, the paws of the circus bears are burnt or removed!” (

Before you start shooting, I am not advocating a return to chained dancing bears on my street, in the same way that I don’t advocate a return to sending children up chimneys or indigent people to the workhouse. We have moved on as a society in the way we treat both animals and people, and a good thing it is. However, I don’t believe that it is essential for domesticated animals to be abused. I look at old photos of bears living with people, going to the pub, swimming in the sea, having a link with humans. Bear cubs snuggling up to human cubs. It just seems the most amazing thing in the world, to have such an animal trust you so much that you can share a life together. Is it truly not possible to make animals part of our lives without abusing them?

Animal rights charities will tell you that keeping animals in any form of “captivity” is abuse. Zoos are abusive, private ownership is abusive, and circuses are the very pinnacles of abuse. The language is pretty catchy too - zoos are “pitiful prisons” and circuses are “shameful shows” - you’ve got to admire the alliteration. Animals should only be seen in the wild, or on television. That is their ultimate goal – no animals “in captivity”, all free in the wild.

Well, watching an animal on television is NOT the same as standing right in front of it, smelling it, watching it watch you. I remember the first time I saw a lion, at a circus zoo before a show – he had eyes the size of dinner plates and looked right into my soul. I was transfixed. When it roared I nearly had an accident. You don’t get that feeling watching a documentary.

As for seeing animals in the wild, well, that’s just wishful thinking, isn’t it? I believe I come from a pretty lucky family – we weren’t rich but we weren’t poor, if you know what I mean. We went on holidays to the seaside every summer, had ice-cream on a Sunday and I got pocket money for sweeties every week. However, safari trips would have been totally out of our reach, and that’s the case for most people. And with the current emphasis on the environmental impact of air travel and not-so-ecotourism, even if we could send every child to Africa, would it really be advisable? If every person went to see every animal in its natural habitat, I suspect there would be precious little of that natural habitat left by the end of it.

It’s not just about exotic species, either. The sad truth of the matter is that most inner-city children do not have a chance to meet many animals at all. I think I’m fairly typical, and the animal life around me consisted of plagues of diseased pigeons, seagulls, and a litter of stray cats we found in the cellar one year. The once-yearly trip to a local animal farm was a massive treat. I was 10 before I went on a walk with a dog, 12 before I touched my first pony, 22 before I saw a seal. When my mum bought me a hamster, every single kid from my class came over to visit, because it was the most amazing thing EVER. And I was not a repressed, uncared-for, neglected child, just a typical city kid from a city family.

We are told that zoos and circuses are bad because “it goes without saying that all the animals suffer physical and mental agony when they are removed from their natural habitat” ( Well, that might go without saying, but what should be said, and said loudly, is that animals in circuses and zoos in this country are not snatched from the wild. They are usually rescued from abusive situations or individuals that would die in the wild. Many are born and raised in zoos and circuses from generations of animals who were born and raised in zoos and circuses – for instance, circus tigers in the UK are twelfth-generation circus. They weren’t stolen from their wild parents and smuggled here, so that agony just isn’t there.

Incidentally, you can now see bears at Colchester zoo. Two rescued Sun Bears arrived in 2010, one an orphaned cub and one rescued from a bar. In the wild, they are a species at risk due to habitat destruction and illegal poaching. Even some Animal Rights organisations have to admit that “some animals do need the protection of specialized areas to keep the species alive, as some of them are utterly on the brink of extinction” ( So, for those who can get themselves to Colchester, there are bears to be seen, and their presence is grudgingly admitted to be a good thing.

I was 36 when I saw my first bear. I took my stepchild, who was 3. How much luckier than me is she? Without the zoo, neither of us could have had this experience.

Like them or hate them, zoos and circuses bring animals to city children – or rather they did. Many local authorities in this country have banned animal circuses from their lands, regardless of whether the animals are “wild” or domesticated, so a dog and a tiger are classed together and result in a automatic ban. These regulations have been put in place with no regards towards the wishes of the constituencies and indeed any attention to their legality. At the same time, the same councils regulations would freely allow other animal spectacles, such as donkey derbies, animal shows and dog agility displays, to name a few. So they would allow me to have a team of dogs jump through hoops of fire and charge people for the pleasure of seeing it if I called it a Country Fair, but not if I called it a Circus. If this is not discrimination, I don’t know what is.

So, you can forget about seeing a bear on a unicycle coming down your street, which is just as well because “it’s unnatural”. Well, last time I checked, it’s also unnatural for people to cycle but many enjoy it nonetheless, in fact they do it just for fun. And as for animals being brutalised during training, well, why shouldn’t that be treated like any other abuse case? Statistics indicate, for instance, that in America 3-5 children are killed every day by their parents, but we’re not going around banning families. The scandal of paedophile priests rocked the Church, but it didn’t lead to councils banning it from towns. Shouldn’t you punish the perpetrators rather than discriminate against a complete industry?

Meanwhile, the “wild” that animals should be returned to is shrinking and losing quality. Many people mourn this loss, but very few make the lifestyle changes that would make a difference. I strongly believe that animals are the best campaigner for nature in the world. They bring environmental causes to life, particularly for children. It is not a coincidence that many popular environmental charities use animals as logos.

By allowing zoos and circuses to preserve species while inspiring children with a love of animals, we are helping keeping “the wild” alive. If we allow animals to go extinct in the wild instead of surviving “in captivity”, we’ve lost the game. If we allow our children to grow up without feeling a connection with animals and nature, we’ve lost a generation of potential conservationists. We should fight for our children’s rights to experience the magic of animals first-hand, not allow it to get snatched away by extremists using scare tactics and poisonous misinformation. We should allow our children to dream of bears.

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