CircusWhen the wide eyes of a nine-year-old perused the pages of ‘2000 AD’ in 1977, one strip set in the far-flung future of 23 years hence seemed less feasible to me than anything involving robots, ray-guns or spaceships. In it, I recall an irate father was poised to deliver a smack to his misbehaving child when the mother interjected by reminding her husband, ‘We don’t chastise children in the 21st century’. This required more stretching of the imagination than the rest of the stories in the comic put together; I clearly remember thinking how such a scenario was never going to happen in my lifetime. I mean, routine smacks, slaps, clouts and belts from grownups was part and parcel of my childhood experience, and had been part and parcel of all the childhood experiences there’d ever been before mine. That was one of the perks of being over-18 – you could physically put an unruly child in its place, just like parents and teachers did on a daily basis to those of us who were kids back then. The idea that this would one day cease as a legitimate punishment and would indeed be frowned upon, even legislated against, was pure pie-in-the-sky. Judge Dredd didn’t seem remotely fantastical next to that.

Yes, this was the age when it was still okay for adults to dispense a clip round the ear-hole, and it was also the age in which latchkey dogs roamed the streets, impregnating the neighbourhood bitches, leaving messages wherever feet were guaranteed to tread, and terrorising kids who were terrified of them. Owners let Rover loose without a second thought, turfing him out of the house on a morning in the same way they’d turf their children out during the school holidays; they all ran wild and unsupervised in a way that’s utterly unimaginable today. Mind you, some animals I came into contact with during my childhood weren’t given carte blanche to roam; some were put to work and became more like family breadwinners than the human head of the household. Farmers relied on animals to play their part in the running of the family business, but there were also those four-legged creatures whose working lives were entered into purely for our entertainment.

Circus folk, for example, relied on the attraction of animal employees to pull the punters in. Urban children who maybe lived several towns away from the nearest zoo had a rare opportunity to see bona fide beasts up-close when the big top magically appeared overnight on the local common. Elephants, lions, tigers – yer actual wildlife of Africa and India lifted out a context copyrighted by David Attenborough and transferred to the showbiz stage. It should have been one hell of an eye-popping experience, yet even as a child in that radically different and un-squeamish era, the two circuses I saw in person made me feel sorry for the animals. As impressive as their choreographed routines might seem on the surface, performing elephants always had sad eyes that gave the game away; they were like reluctant strippers faced with little option but to take off their clothes in public just to make ends meet; they weren’t doing it through choice.

Perhaps the fact that one circus I saw as a child was a small, rather shabby low-rent affair a long way from the glitzy glamour of the circuses that always seemed to be broadcast as part of the Christmas Day TV schedule also impacted upon my perception of them. The conditions certainly enhanced the drowsy, drugged-up apathy of the lacklustre lions and toothless tigers on display so that even the crack of the whip failed to breathe any sense of urgency into them. All the animals looked worn-out, weary and wasted, going through jaded motions that were an archaic hangover from the Victorian age. I can’t imagine such a set-up being allowed today – and it wouldn’t be, thankfully. Like the boxing kangaroos occasionally wheeled-out to enliven a lacklustre variety show on TV, not everything in the past was superior to now; some things really have changed for the better. When the Wild Animals in Circuses Act of 2019 came into effect at the beginning of last year, circuses in England were belatedly banned from including wild animals in their line-ups, following similar Acts passed in Scotland and Wales a year or two before.

At a time when so much legislation that passes through Parliament seems to constitute little more than the ongoing erosion of civil liberties and all the hard-fought rights of which we were once so proud and are now prepared to give up without much in the way of a fight, how refreshing to see changes to the law that are actually worthwhile and long overdue. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill received its third and final reading last week and is deserving of a round of applause. It increases the maximum sentence for cruelty to animals from a paltry six months to a far more substantial five years. Coming at a moment when a vile crime like dog-theft is on the increase, the Bill couldn’t be more timely; whilst the Wild Animals in Circuses Act is intended to curb the exploitation of exotic beasts, this new Bill casts its net wider and turns its attention to abuse of the domesticated members of the animal kingdom, those we are far more likely to come into contact with than lions, tigers or elephants.

All-too often, it seems, animal rights are monopolised by (and assumed to be the exclusive property of) the ‘activist’, the stager of stunts and the disturber of the peace, the kind that arguably does more harm than good in making people aware of animal exploitation and cruelty – just as legitimate concerns over the future of the planet become negatively associated with the disruptive clowns of Extinction Rebellion, putting people off the issue when it’s so closely linked to the prats that use it as a vehicle for their own antisocial narcissism. However, legislation such as the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill and the Wild Animals in Circuses Act wrestle the subject out of the hands of the activist and remind us that this is an issue that concerns all of us. After all, it’s barely a year since the overnight removal of traffic from the roads and aircraft from the skies suddenly opened the floodgates for animals to claim the vacated spaces with amazing speed; the birdsong soundtrack and the surreal sight of deer grazing on suburban lawns served as a salient wake-up call to the fact that we actually share this place and don’t own it outright.

It’s been a long, slow road to getting here – the Proroguing of Parliament in 2019 and then Covid held things up somewhat; but the Statute Book and Royal Assent were finally in sight when the Bill crossed the finishing line at the eleventh hour just 24 hours prior to the conclusion of the current Parliamentary session last week. The various animal charities that have played their part in pushing this deserve credit, and Lord John Randall paid tribute to their work. ‘I commend all the charities involved for the weight and purpose they brought to this campaign,’ he said, ‘to secure one of the most significant changes to animal welfare legislation since the Animal Welfare Act of 2006.’ The Act referenced in his statement had helped lay the ground for both this new one and the Wild Animals in Circuses Act, and even though it won’t end the maltreatment of animals overnight, it undoubtedly reflects a wider change in attitude towards animals within society during my lifetime.

The founding of the RSPCA in 1824 opened eyes to everyday levels of commonplace cruelty that to us today seem barbaric, and perhaps future generations will look back in astonishment at some of the things we tolerated in the same way we now look back at bull-baiting, cock-fighting and fox-hunting. Ah, thinking about it, maybe there’s still plenty of work needs doing yet.

© The Editor


Just yesterday in conversation, I recalled how the novelty of my grandmother’s colour television set in the early 1970s was something that made Christmas Day even more of a break with the monochrome norm as a child. As well as the inevitable sparkly spectacle of ‘Top of the Pops’, Christmas Day TV then always seemed to feature a circus as well, something that was brought to life even more when viewed in colour. I’d seen a circus in the flesh around the age of four, housed in a huge Edwardian tram-shed known as the Queen’s Hall in Leeds; all I can really remember about it is a tiger and a shapely woman in a tight blue leotard struggling to contain her curves.

A little later, around the age of ten, I saw my second and last circus, this time in a more traditional big top, and the memory is more vivid. I felt sorry for the sad and shabby-looking lions forced into performing tired old stunts. I’d experienced a similar sensation when seeing a caged puma at Blackpool Zoo a couple of years earlier, pacing up and down its tiny cell as visitors passed it by en route to the more glamorous kings of the jungle. Even then, and despite Johnny Morris’s wacky antics as a pretend zookeeper on ‘Animal Magic’, I felt there was something wrong and quite cruel about wild animals being removed from their natural habitat and being put on display. Zoos appeared less antiquated and sadistic than circuses, but the attractions were still imprisoned.

Two stories in the news this past week have brought that thought back to my mind. One concerned a turtle at a park in Thailand which has had to have over 900 coins it had swallowed removed from its stomach. The operation took seven gruelling hours and was the consequence of visitors to the park tossing said coins into the pool containing the turtle; they apparently believed doing so would bring them luck ala the Trevi Fountain in Rome; but it didn’t bring the poor sea creature much luck, causing a heavy ball to form in its belly weighing 111bs and cracking its shell. Three Coins in the Fountain doesn’t sound quite so romantic when racked up to Nine-hundred.

The other story received more publicity, being on home ground. It was at South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria, a location with a shameful record that is staggering to study. A report published last week revealed that, of the 1,500 animals held captive there, almost 500 died between 2013 and 2016, some of causes such as hypothermia and emaciation. The annual death rate of animals was estimated at around 12% and the catalogue of deaths reads like a roll-call of appalling ineptitude and neglect.

An African spurred tortoise died of electrocution by electric fencing; a pair of snow leopard cubs were discovered partially eaten; a fennec fox died from getting its head stuck in a wire fence; a black and white ruffled lima died after making its way into a wolf enclosure; the body of a squirrel monkey was even stumbled upon, decomposing behind a radiator.

Government inspectors wrote the report into the awful conditions at South Lakes Safari Zoo and recommended the local authorities refuse a renewal of its licence. Their conclusions highlighted ‘overcrowding, poor hygiene, poor nutrition, lack of suitable animal husbandry and a lack of any sort of developed veterinary care’. Mercifully, the founder and owner of the zoo, David Gill (who already has a conviction for the escape of several sacred ibis) was refused the renewal of his license yesterday, but his utter unsuitability for the role hit the headlines long before the current crisis affecting the zoo did.

Only last summer, the zoo received a fine of £225,000 for breaches of health and safety regulations following the death of one of its zookeepers, Sarah McClay, who was mauled by a Sumatran tiger four years ago. The 24 year-old was attending to feeding and cleaning duties when attacked by the tiger, which only managed to get to her due to a broken bolt on the door dividing her from it in the enclosure. She was pronounced dead after being airlifted to hospital. David Gill’s response to the preventable tragedy was to blame McClay for not adhering to safety procedures.

The zoo licensing system appears to be a piece of essentially useless legislation when it comes to the likes of South Lakes Safari Zoo. It entrusts the responsibility of inspections to local authorities, and had not government inspectors visited the zoo following successive breaches of the law, perhaps its failings wouldn’t have been made public. They came to the conclusion that the owner Mr Gill should be prosecuted under the Animal and Welfare Act as well as being refused his licence; at least the latter has come to pass, but even though the zoo is now in the hands of Cumbria Zoo Company, the people running it are largely former employees of Mr Gill, and therefore oversaw the very things that have brought it into disrepute.

The Captive Animals Protection Society, a charity which advocates the abolition of all zoos, has held up the farce in Cumbria as indicative of the shambolic nature in which zoos are run in this country; it calls for South Lakes Safari Zoo to be closed down, and when one reads the litany of disasters credited to it, that would seem a valid demand.

Despite the employment of the word ‘safari’ in the name of this shockingly bad example of how to care for captive wild animals, it would seem the bona-fide safari park is generally the most humane manner for people who can’t afford to visit Africa to see such beautiful beasts in at least an approximation of their natural habitat. The zoo, like the circus, would today appear to be a redundant and irrelevant medium for viewing the natural world by proxy.

© The Editor