Animals as spectacle: shun this circus

The circus industry recently celebrated the World Circus Day, which marked its 250th year. A special opportunity to celebrate cultural roots and entertainment — circuses have for years been the hallmark of family entertainment. However, not everybody seemed to have celebrated this day. The animals used at circuses often lead lives of suffering and injury, far away from their natural habitat or circumstances.

The practice of using animals to perform tricks and collecting menageries is literally medieval entertainment, reflecting of times when people had limited sources of entertainment. The concept of welfare and rights of sentient creatures was absent then in the public psyche and animals were considered property to be used for different forms of human ‘consumption’, without any recognition of their liberty or attribution of free will.

India has 53 travelling circuses with approximately 560 animals. All circus animals are subject to harsh training from a young age using negative conditioning of torture and punishment to force them to perform unnatural tricks and manoeuvres. Some of the tricks and training techniques have been shown to put the lives of animals at risk.

Examples include forcing animals to perform acts which could possibly be fatal, such as jumping through hoops of fire, standing on stool and walking a tightrope. A common sight in Indian circuses is a group of malnourished; uncared for animals showing telltale signs of physical and psychological trauma with open wounds and chronic deformities.

Some circuses also breed animals without licenses and use pregnant, disabled, sick and injured animals for performances. Many circus animals show stereotypical signs of mental stress — continuous swaying, pacing in the cage and the like.

Performances based on human skills like trapeze acts, trampoline stunts and gymnastics are engaging. They are great crowd-pullers and can entertain people better than animals. It is these artists that form the backbone of the circus industry in India. Encouraging them instead of animal shows will help keep their livelihoods alive.

Globally too, there has been a voluntary shift towards animal-free circuses. Leading the vibrant nouveau cirque movement, highly successful human-only circuses such as Cirque du Soleil, Circus Oz, and The Flying Fruit Fly Circus have shown that non-animal shows can draw audience in big numbers without giving way to cruelty.

Travelling circuses historically exploited the curiosity of people and exhibited exotic animals in their menageries. These were, at that time, probably the only chance for common public to see exotic animals. But that has ceased to be the reality with access to a wider range of entertainment, shift in public taste and growing concern for rights and welfare of animals.

Abuse as entertainment

Teaching animals to perform inappropriate tricks portrays them to the public in a manner far removed from their natural behaviour. Instead of showing their natural grace and beauty, such circuses desensitise the society, particularly young children, to animal abuse in the name of entertainment.

Various courts throughout the country have ordered seizures of animal from circuses on grounds of cruelty and violations of the law. Further, forest departments and police departments at various locations have had to seize animals on similar grounds.

The movement for a national legislation to end the use of animals in circuses has been gaining momentum. Noted parliamentarians, film actors and advocates have written to the ministry supporting the exclusion of animals from circuses.

Both the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) — regulatory bodies for circuses — have recommended a legislative amendment to exclude all animals from circuses, based on numerous and repeated violation of rules, and cruelty to animals.

Our Constitution and the legal system have time and again upheld the rights of animals. They have provided enough provisions and precedent for us to live up to the declaration in Article 51A that it is a fundamental duty of every citizen to “protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures”.

The government has progressively used the provision to bring in welfare legislations, including proactive ones like the ban on captive cetaceans. Now, it is time for the government to act on animal entertainment which has naturally lost its place in a civilised society, and legislate to ensure that the animals are spared the buffoonery.

(The writer is the Director of Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO)

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Animals as spectacle: shun this circus

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