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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Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Scottish Circus Animal Ban: Questionable Ethics?

For those who do not know yet, the Scottish Parliament have published a bill to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. With all the pressing matters arising from the impending Brexit; a debate over a second referendum on Scottish independence; recent acts of terrorism occurring in Britain*; immigration issues; foreign policy debates; concerns of educational cuts; problems with the National Health Service; and the inherent challenges met by an ageing population; it’s nice to know that our politicians want to tackle such an urgent matter as the banning of a minority animal enterprise that has regularly met its English regulatory standards.

There are currently two circuses that tour the UK with wild animals and this has been the situation for a number of years. The fact that neither of these shows has toured Scotland for the past eight years also has not escaped the attention of those in favour of the ban. Indeed, they make it part of their argument and claim that it is easier to ban than to regulate. They even argue that it is financially more expedient to ban than to regulate. This might be the case, but easier and financially expedient does not always correlate with what is justifiable.

It does seem strange that the costs of licensing are put forward as a reason to go for a ban instead. When you consider that the regulations are already in place in England, so it is hard to imagine that there would be extensive extra costs to adopt the same regulations for Scotland, to cover two Circuses.
Apart from that the licensing that is already in force for England is not funded by Government, or the tax payers, because it is funded by the Circuses that require a license themselves.

As stated within regulation 8 of The Welfare of Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (England) Regulations 2012, explained further in the Licensing Regulations Guidance and also confirmed during 2013 in the House of Commons by the then Minister of State (Department for Enviroment, Food and Rural Affairs) Rt Hon David Heath, all the administrative costs of implementing the regulations are covered by the Licensing Fees recovered from any applicants and the costs of all the inspections, whether announced, or unannounced are also entirely paid for by the applying Circuses.

What is the Scottish Parliament’s justification? Quite simply put the Scottish National Party wish to uphold their manifesto promise, which Parliament has claimed is underlined by a public opinion poll. At no point, prior to the ban being put in motion, were the true stakeholders (British travelling circuses that feature wild animals) consulted. Those in favour of the ban-  animal rights groups such as Animal Defenders International , the
Captive Animal Protection Society and politicians they have been able to convince – crow that 98 per cent of the responders were in favour of a ban.

However, according to the vet overseeing the bill, Andrew Voas, and his civil servant colleagues, this is what those statistics actually mean.

The opinion poll was sent out to 5.3 million Scottish people. Of the 5.3 million Scots only 2,043 (0.04%) engaged with the consultation. They also don’t mention that 1,000 of the Scots who responded are not resident in Scotland. 40 of those who responded were against the ban.

So that leaves us with 1,003 resident Scots (0.02%) and a few MPs in favour of the ban. Now this is not taking into the account the way these polls are easily and shamelessly manipulated. We saw a similar example of this when England also conducted such a poll. The result was less of an example of actual public opinion and more a demonstration of how the animal rights movement can coordinate their online supporters.

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

One cannot help but observe the paradoxical nature of the “appeal to popularity” argument put forward by those who actively oppose the use of wild animals in circuses. On the one hand, they believe that almost 100 per cent of any British country’s population is opposed to the use of wild animals in circus and yet they also argue that money is the only motivation that drives circus owners to use wild animals.

Now, such an argument might hold true if circuses were the indulgence of a high-earning elite in our society (or if they benefited from some sort of external funding like in other countries) but circus has long been the preserve of working class families. In the past it has attracted royal patronage, and still does in Monte Carlo, but most touring animal circuses in Britain know that their main customers do not come from the higher earning echelons of society.

With no funding whatsoever, the traditional wild animal circus touring the United Kingdom has large overheads to meet before even paying their staff. Even the most cynical circus critic must appreciate this fact. So, if a circus is being visited mainly by a lower wage earning demographic logic dictates that their prices have to be affordable. The fact that the circuses that are being targeted by the ban are travelling entities does not support an argument that perhaps circus just makes it earnings off exceptionally ignorant members of society. The circus is still actively touring different communities and those communities are voting with their feet in numbers large enough for the circus to support itself and to fund the licensing costs. Taking the polls at face value it appears that less than five per cent of the country’s lower wage earning population is supporting travelling wild animal circuses.    

Another poll was conducted local to Central and North Aberdeenshire over three days. Those who signed the poll watched Thomas Chipperfield practise a typical circus routine with his group of lions and tigers. The poll the viewers were asked to sign was to confirm whether they approved of the display they had watched. Over 1,000 signatures, including postcodes to confirm their identities, said that they had no problem with the performance. The results of this poll was presented to Andrew Voas and his committee on May 19th 2017.

If the penny hasn't dropped yet, let's have a look at what that poll means in comparison to the official one. It means that at least 1,000 confirmed residents of Scotland watched a circus wild animal performance and approved to the extent that they were willing to put their names and addresses to a form that would be presented to their Parliament. What does that tell you about the previous opinion poll?
Furthermore, in this supposedly enlightened era of reason it seems rather nefarious to push for an ethical argument because a scientific one has failed. However, this is exactly what happened in England. The 2007 Radford Report was the second objective scientific report on wild animals in travelling circuses. The previous one (sponsored by the RSPCA in 1989) had ended up winning over the animal behaviourist, Dr Matha Kiley-Worthingon, who had conducted the investigation. Her conclusion had been that improvements should be made, but there was nothing wrong in principle with allowing wild animals in travelling circuses.

See: Dr Kiley-Worthington’s report ANIMALS in CIRCUSES and ZOOS

See: Dr Kiley-Worthington's Paper for the UFAW 1989 Animal Training Symposium


The Radford Report, commissioned by the UK government and pushed by a politician who clearly had no love for animal circuses, also concluded that there was no scientific grounds for banning wild animals in circuses. Animal welfare, as defined by the science that supports the care of animals in a captive environment (and enforced in the UK by the Animal Welfare Act 2006) shows that, in principle, wild animals can be kept and trained in travelling circuses.

Such a conclusion had to be mentioned when government was pushed to make a decision on wild animals in circus. With various MPs lobbied by animal rightists to push their issue and less circus people active, the decision to be in favour of ban seemed like an easy one for politicians – if it was not for that pesky scientific data! So, politicians decided to play their last desperate card. Ethics: The favourite subjective argument that anyone can use when logic fails.    

England failed to implement the ban despite making a commitment to do so. There were a small number of MPs with enough strength of character willing to stand up to the bullies in Westminster and shout over their cries. As the bill was blocked a series of rigorous government inspections were commissioned in 2012. These regulations were welcomed by many people in the animal training world (and not just circus). They have continuously proved that travelling circuses can meet modern animal welfare standards. Combined with the previous scientific reviews, the travelling circus should be seen as vindicated.

Enter the Welsh Assembly. With a small representation of politicians, the animal rights movement saw another opportunity to fast-track a ban in Wales. Whilst Westminster "dragged its feet and dithered", Wales could make the move.
True to political form, the Welsh Assembly announced that it was committed to ban wild animals in travelling circus. However, mindful of the Radford Report’s conclusions they wished to do this based on science. So, what did they do? Did they employ a dispassionate yet highly respected animal behaviourist to conduct an extensive survey of the two remaining wild animal circuses? No, that was an independent RSPCA initiative back in 1989. That surely would not do given the fact that, 17 years later, the Radford Report employed an entire board of scientists to conduct their in-the-field research. One would imagine that a similar board of dispassionate scientific researchers would be needed. However what the Welsh Assembly decided to do was employ Professor Stephen Harris.

Put an internet search in for Harris – who is an environmental scientist - and see what you find. Top of my current list is the news story that Harris’s clearly biased position meant that his witness testimony could not be admitted in a previous animal welfare court case, resulting in the said case being thrown out of court. Harris had also publically made it clear where he stood on the use of animals in circuses: he was vehemently against them.

 See: Circus captivity is beastly for wild animals

Okay, so Harris was just one biased voice. How about we put in someone else from the scientific community with a diametrically opposed opinion to balance things out? No? Well how about an impartial scientist on the board? No. What the Welsh Assembly permitted was that under Harris’s direction there would be one scientist who had earned her PhD directly under his tutelage and another one who also had a long history of working alongside animal rights groups. This was the entire group. To make matters even worse, the team did not work out in the field. Instead they used data collected from around the world on animal circuses, including some that had been specifically prepared for them by animal rights groups.

In a shameless insult to both the scientific method and democracy, the Welsh Assembly, in effect, were saying:

“None of the scientific evidence put forward on wild animals in circus is giving us the justification we need to ban the practice. Create one that does”. [that is not an actual quote, but it's not a million miles away from what the UK government had previously said about there being no scientific evidence to ban wild animals in travelling circuses, so they were going to pursue it on ethical grounds]

That is exactly what Harris and his cronies did, with gusto. They not only regurgitated animal rights propaganda, virtually word-for-word, but they exceeded their remit and proposed a ban on mobile zoos as well. If anyone is in doubt of the thin end of the wedge argument, it is there in the Welsh Assembly’s “scientific report”.

However, the ban did not come into force. The Welsh politicians seemed to do the sensible thing and follow England’s lead to use regulations. That’s the thing with regulations: if you are inspecting something against the instituted standards of law – in this case the Animal Welfare Act 2006 – and that something meet the set criteria, it is a bit difficult to rationalise making it illegal because some people just do not like it. Yet the offending report, which should be completely discredited given the way it was conducted and the blatant conflict of interests of its administrators, is now cited as part of the argument against the use of wild animals in travelling circuses.

At the recent meeting of stakeholders in Edinburgh (in the flesh or by telephone), the argument against the ban was not just represented by UK wild animal circus people. Indeed, the entire representation for the two circuses that tour England and Wales came in the form of the Circus Guild of Great Britain. Other representatives included Zippos Circus, which only exhibits domesticated animals, the European Circus Association and the Thomas Chipperfield business, which rents wild animal acts in Europe and has put on wild animal demonstrations in England and Wales, and PACT (the trade association representing UK television and film). All of these parties could see the immediate knock-on effect of an illogical ban on the use of wild animals in Scotland. There was a serious principle at stake that could not be ignored.   

Another problem at the core of the bill is that none of the literature satisfactory defines a “travelling circus”. This was a similar problem presented before DEFRA when they were given the task of overseeing the bill in England. At least they had a reasonable definition for “wild animal”, which is also absent in the Scottish case. In the end, DEFRA did not have to worry about the “circus” part as the regulations ran smoothly and the bill has yet to be passed.  However, the problem still remains. We also know that this problem is one that the Animal Rights movement are well aware of and will help push through their subsequent aims towards animal apartheid.

This was demonstrated in the Welsh investigation’s recommendation to ban mobile zoos and the way that animal rights groups regularly align travelling circuses with any other form of live animal entertainment. Once made law, the same arguments that circus people used to defend themselves by means of comparison will be used as weapons against anyone else who wants to tour with wild animals in any capacity. Furthermore, they are all more than ready (and are now actively campaigning against) the use of domestic animals in circuses and all animals in the audiovisual industries.  

When is a circus not a circus? And what makes any other travelling animal exhibition (that is not a circus) ethically better? It’s not a question anyone had adequately answered without making an appeal to art or aesthetics. And there is that “ethics” word again. Ethics are the basis and justification for the bill. Animal Welfare just appears to be a superficial covering and an automatic assumption. Yet no one presently overseeing the bill (or at the meeting with stakeholders) holds an academic qualification in the  field of ethics.

As mentioned previously, ethics are a difficult and dangerous area to decide laws upon due to their subjectivity. The ethics of animal rights groups are definitely not reflective of the majority in any area of society as their aims are for a vegan lifestyle and animal apartheid.

However, as a final note, it is worth observing that Dr Marthe Kiley Worthington did approach the issue of ethics in her report for the RSPCA and argued a sound case for the use of wild animals in circuses (with improvements).

Taking all of the above into consideration, I ask for a call to arms on this issue and to make a stand against this ban. Everyone has been invited to write to to explain their objections to this ban. With enough support perhaps the stakeholders and concerned parties will be invited back to put their case to the Scottish Parliament. 

*Please note this essay was written prior to the Manchester terror attack and the terrorist acts mentioned were in reference to those occurring earlier in the year. 

Links to related Astley’s posts on the Scottish Ban

Scottish ban on wild animals in circuses. Thomas Chipperfield Responses

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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