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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Monday, 5 September 2011

‎" Disneyfication and our changing relationship with animals" by Anna Valdiserri

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsImage by BetterWorks via Flickr
This excellent article provides a wonderful juxtaposition of the differing needs between humans and non-human animals. It also makes a good argument for how metaphor and fantasy have become confused in our cultural mindset when comes to having compassion for animals. She uses the term "Disneyfication", which has been applied before in a derogative sense to a whole range of issues in our culture where the influence of the works of the world's second largest entertainment company have seriously impaired people's perceptions of the world. 

It's interesting and somewhat ironic when it comes to animals and the term "Disneyfication". Since Walt Disney created his first feature length animated picture, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in 1937 the animals of nature have been generally presented as a harmonious anthropomorphized jolly lot that help the forces of good. Occasional rogue animals cause problems, but they are always in the minority. 1942's "Bambi" pretty much set the standard with man cast as the only real enemy of all the animals. Like with most of Disney's films up to the present day the film showed predator and prey animals happily getting along together and representing very little of the constant fight for survival wild animals endure every day.

Few half-serious Animal Rights activists, no matter how badly informed or delusional, would actively admit to thinking that nature is like the way it is presented in a typical Disney or Disney-style animated feature film. However, they look to Natural History Documentaries as an absolute and unquestionable source for information. These condensed, heavily edited and often contrived works serve a good purpose at times (as do Disney pictures), but they are far from accurate depictions of the wild. They often come across as rather "sciency" and are sometimes presented by actual scientists, but the reality is often far removed from the very simplistic and utopian picture presented. Again, the same story is told:  Nature - no matter how fierce and furious - is a harmonious existence with man being the only real oppressive disruptor. 

What few viewers realize is that many Natural History Documentaries use trained animals in studios to get close up shots and other material not achievable on a limited budget.  There has been a degree of controversy throughout their history of set-ups in the wild and this is not surprising. One has only to go on an Indian safari to see how wild tigers are herded and virtually trained by guides on the backs of elephants to amuse those paying top dollar to "see animals in the wild".

Christie Wilcox wrote an excellent piece of Scientific American that really challenges our perceptions regarding animals in the wild. She takes the standards we set for animals in captivity - enshrined in the "Five Needs" - and sees what this says about the quality of life a wild animal really experiences. 

The ironic bit is that Walt Disney had little issue with animals living in captivity or being trained. The legacy of this can be seen in the park, Disney's Animal Kingdom. Walt's company produced many Natural History Documentaries and he even employed a famous animal circus family, the Chipperfields, to work on these productions. Their work together corresponded with Jimmy Chipperfield's pioneering of safari parks. Walt even presented Mary Chipperfield, Jimmy's daughter, with a bracelet bearing the inscribed names of all the Disney films she had worked on...

It is safe enough to say that over the last century Western people’s relationship with animals has radically changed. Animals used to be an essential part of the economy, providing food, fuel, materials and energy. They were the engines that ploughed the field and pulled the carriages, the producers of milk and eggs, they gave people essential materials like bones, pelts, wool, not to forget manure, and so on. Whether domestication was “right” or “fair” was quite simply not an issue. People NEEDED animals to meet their needs. Whether they loved them or not as individuals, the lives of people and animals were intertwined.
The current situation in “modern” countries is now very different. The vast majority of people interact with animals only as pets, or as rare, treasured wildlife. The use of animals as food is often opposed or swept under the carpet, with people becoming increasingly ignorant of what goes on in the food preparation process. The need for animals in our lives is not so obvious.
With this change in animals’ role within society has come a change in people’s view of them. Animals are no longer seen as tools, but as precious individuals with needs and rights. This would be all very well, if it wasn’t for another change in perspective. I like to call it Disneyfication - people increasingly form their opinions of animals’ lives and needs based on popular stories about animals wearing clothes and having human adventures, with very little contact with real, live beasts. Unfortunately, the many stories which have made children fall in love with animals are, essentially, not about animals. They are about humans in furry costumes.
The animals in those stories have human personalities, dreams, aspirations, ethics, etc. Now, I am not saying that animals don’t have a personality – I don’t know two dogs that are the same, and I know literally hundreds. However, a dog is a dog, not a person, and the same applies to all species. For instance, while it might be amusing to wonder if bees ever suffer from work-related stress, basing our dealings with them on this considerations would be, frankly, a bit silly. Ditto for thinking that lion cubs want to “make their parents proud”, rats are depressed by people’s unwillingness to love them, and so on. Animals are complex, special, and a blessing on many people’s lives – but they are not human.
This basic difference between people and animals was recognised in the Animal Welfare Act of 2006, which set out the principle of the Five Needs, as follows:

A - Its need for a suitable environment.

B-Its need for a suitable diet

C-Its need to exhibit normal behaviour patterns

D-Any need it has to be housed with ,or apart from,other animals .

E  Its need to be protected from pain suffering  injury and disease

These requirements recognise that animals are animals. Their needs are intrinsically different from ours, because we’re a different species, with specific needs. Human needs are often summarised in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow essentially states that there are 5 levels of needs for humans, as follows:
1. Physiological
2. Safety
3. Love
4. Esteem
5. Self-actualization
Once the basic needs are met, we strive for the higher ones. Once we have all five, then we’re happy bunnies. If we don’t have the basic ones, the higher ones are temporarily put aside – it is not a lot of use to me to know that I am loved and esteemed if I can’t breathe, or am starving.
This widely-accepted theory was never intended to be applied to animals. My dog does not sit on his bed and think “my father was a working dog and I do nothing all day long, I should be ashamed of myself”. He does not worry about whether he’s realised his potential. In fact, because he’s a happy, well-cared for member of a stable pack, he just doesn’t worry. His needs – food, water, shelter, medical care, safety, company, exercise, play – are met. He doesn’t dream of a free, wild life of self-determination, he dreams of chasing rabbits (believe me, I know). He’s not aspirational – he’s a dog.
When we start thinking of animals as people, we run the serious risk of causing them more harm than good by failing to meet their basic needs whilst trying to meet some they just don’t have. It scares me silly to go to pet shops and see dog toys wrapped in packaging that make me feel like I’m in Mothercare. Whilst my dogs are my family, I stay aware of the fact that we’re not the same species. By treating dogs like babies, in my experience what you often end up with is confused, neurotic wrecks.
In my eyes, this is the main difference between Animal Welfare and Animal Rights. Animal Welfare is about meeting animals’ needs (as in the Five Freedoms). It is based on the knowledge of each species’ requirements, as well as individual preferences. On the other hand, Animal Rights seems too often to be about people projecting their own aspirations, dreams, ethics and prejudices onto animals (“Disneyfication”).
Disneyfication becomes positively dangerous when the people doing so are unaware of a species’ requirements, because they’ve never worked, lived, or even read up on them. A classic one is people mourning about solitary species being “lonely”. One of my personal favourites is people complaining about “horses confined to stables” in the winter, when horse owners know that most horses, given the choice, would stay in a warm stable rather than in a cold field, because they value food and warmth (animal needs) more than “freedom” (human need). 
The situation is even worse when the supposed needs of wild animals are applied to animals who have been domesticated from birth, sometimes even for generations. For an extreme example, at some stage in history my dog’s ancestors were wild wolves, but to assume that he would like to live like them, or indeed assuming that he would be able to survive in the same conditions, would be pretty silly. If you released him into the wild he would probably be dead in under two weeks – and don’t try to convince me that he would rather “die free than live in captivity”, because he’s NOT A HUMAN. Freedom is not one of his aspirations, unlike walkies, balls, biscuits, and sneaking on the sofa when I’m not looking. I don’t know if there is a hard and fast rule about how many generations it takes to lose enough natural instincts to make life in the wild almost impossible, but I do believe that it is something that should be carefully considered when thinking about how we should treat each individual animal – for instance, a 12th-generation captive tiger may be very different from one born in the wild.
Circus animals have been at the epicentre of this conflict of views. The crux of the matter is that these animals are “exploited” for human gain, by being “forced” to perform “unnatural” tricks. Their travelling lifestyle is also deemed not to meet their basic needs. Unfortunately, this is a judgement based on human ethics, not animal needs, and often based on incorrect factoids and prejudice. The protesters that stand in front of animal circuses shouting at visiting children and wearing posters of mistreated animals (often from other countries and/or decades) are often painfully unaware of how animals’ lives actually are, in the circus, in the wild and in other industries. For instance, horses are said to be “unnaturally forced” to rear, when anyone who knows anything about horses knows that there wouldn’t be any baby horses if the daddy horses didn’t want to rear! As for travelling, many species naturally roam over large territories. It may be well far more unnatural for a horse to live in the same field all its life. In essence, the current campaign against circus animals is purely a moral crusade, based on very little information. 
Now, I don’t for a minute think that I have the right to tell people what to believe, and indeed don’t really care to be told what I should believe, so I’m staying well out of this moral debate. But one thing I hold as a fact, and that is the importance of treating animals as animals, for their own good as well as ours.
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1 comment:

  1. Wilber Behmes A friend of mine and an old timer in the exotic animal community that now has passed on. shared many a story about the makings of the early animal documentary shows that I grew up on. He and his family had a game farm/small private zoo in Aniwa, Wisconsin. He told me of how he and his family would get the scripts and set the stage on their farm where footage would be shot. Using their captive and trained animals they would set the scenes as instructed for shows like Mutual Of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom" and such. While we at home had the impression the footage was in the wilds of Africa or high in the Rocky Mountains they were actually in a field in WI.