This was to be the year Britain ended the centuries-old custom of the animal circus. With its elephants made to stand atop one another in pyramids, horses decorated like ice cream parfaits, swaggering lion tamers, and ringmasters directing tigers through hoops, the animal circus is one of the most arrogant displays of human dominance ever developed. In reality, big cats prey on primates; anthropologically speaking, Homo sapiens are on the traditional lunch menu.1 Even today, in their natural habitats, the nonhuman great apes are vulnerable to leopards and lions — as are the human ones.2
But we humans don’t like anyone else getting the upper hand, claw or fang. Wherever our industry advances, predators are conquered, pushed to marginal lands, kept behind fences, domesticated, used by the elite as lifestyle accessories, paraded down streets and on stages.
Ruth Gordon, as Maude Chardin in the delightful film Harold and Maude, observed in 1971, “Zoos are full, prisons are overflowing; oh my, how the world still dearly loves a cage.” Gordon has since passed away. Cages, and the world’s love for them, remain.
And yet, polls taken today do show most of the public opposing animal circuses — at least in Britain, and at least when it comes to non-domesticated animals.
Fewer than 50 such animals are still owned by four British circuses, including seven tigers and five lions, five zebras, several camels, llamas, crocodiles and snakes, a kangaroo and an elephant called Anne. Only the Great British Circus still uses lions and tigers. The owner insists they enjoy a good life, despite their cramped quarters.
“Circus animals have a very mentally and physically stimulating day,” says lion trainer Martin Lacey. “Rather like police dogs and police horses who at the end of the day go back to their stable or kennel because that’s all they require.”3
The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 was expected to pave the way for a ban on non-domesticated animals in circuses by 2008 — if scientific evidence would prove animals in British circuses were suffering. But an international panel of experts concluded there’s no proof they suffer more than other captive animals. The panel took captivity for granted, although captivity is what’s fundamentally wrong with the way we treat circus animals. It’s what’s fundamentally wrong with the way we treat the others as well.
Some campaigners hope to see circuses subjected to the Zoo Licensing Act, because many British circuses will fall short of zoo standards and go out of business. But such a strategy suggests that zoos provide an acceptable quality of life to animals who should have been allowed to stay in their habitats to experience freedom.
Tatiana’s Last Day
Underscoring the wrong done by zoos is the recent death of a young Siberian tiger known as Tatiana, who broke out of confinement in California’s San Francisco Zoo, killed a person, and was shot.
The zoo’s director of animal care and conservation, Robert Jenkins, could not explain the 300-pound cat’s escape, for the enclosure involves high walls and a moat.4 But near closing time, just outside the enclosure, the young tiger caught and killed one young human being. A zoo employee dialed 911. When a group of four police officers arrived, the cat was reportedly attacking another youth about 300 yards away, in front of the Terrace Café. The police confronted the cat, and fired their handguns.
The media paused for a moment, as though in shock. Then came the stories about how unusual the attack was: The dead zoo customer, and two others who were attacked in the same incident, must have been drunk. An unidentified source said they carried slingshots. The fence was lower than the standard height. The zoo management had previous problems. And so forth — essentially painting the picture that the tragedy belonged to this zoo, not all zoos.
Advocates walked into the same trap. A San Francisco media outlet quoted Elliot Katz, who presides over California-based In Defense of Animals (IDA), as saying this particular zoo has a history of provoking the cats and inducing them to growl for audiences in “public feeding spectacles.”5
Sounding like a PR advisor to zoos, Katz said the public feeding should end, and zoos must adopt the mindset of a “haven” or “sanctuary” that places the quality of life of the animals above public entertainment and exploitation.
In the same article, Fred Rabidoux, a Unitarian Universalist minister in San Francisco, was far clearer.
“Why are we subjecting these animals to such unnatural conditions?” asked Rabidoux. “The right thing to do is to respect the right of each animal to live its life in surroundings that nature put it in.”
And in one of the most powerful demonstrations we’ve seen, performer Patti Smith, in a New Year’s concert the close of 2007 in New York City, aptly called the zoo a prison and the described the tiger’s death as the spilling of God’s blood.
Siberian tigers are classified as endangered. Tatiana was shipped to San Francisco from the Denver Zoo a few years ago, with zoo officials planning to get Tatiana to mate.6 A year ago Tatiana had seized and bitten the arm of a keeper. Clearly, Tatiana’s own plans differed from those who claimed power over this individual. This was one of the world’s free souls. For that, they killed her.
Meet Your Keeper
Can zoos be justified? It’s fashionable today for zoos to claim they preserve animals — treating living beings rather like museum specimens. Now, the tacky website of the Great British Circus boasts a gene bank for camels.
Some zoo professionals do care about protecting real habitats; but many think zoos suitably replace the areas where animals would be naturally born. Animals are individuals, and although preservation of their communities is important, what good is that if they and their mates, whom they do not choose, and their offspring, who are imposed upon them, can only live behind chain-linked and electrified fences, or in a touring spectacle?
We ourselves may well be headed for extinction, because so many animals with whom our physical lives are intertwined are disappearing from nature. If the trend carries on at the current rate, more than half of all plant and animal species will be gone by 2100. This unremitting spate of extinctions — even more than escalated climate change — is the most certain threat to human life on Earth.7
What if we found our time was up, and, while contemplating our pending extinction, some of us got a call from a species of people from another planet, interested in whisking us off and conserving us? If we accepted, there’d be no Earth’s nature for us, ever again. To be conserved we’d be brought to another planet, kept behind a fence, fed, and occasionally moved between sites to be bred.
- See Donna Hart and Robert Sussman: Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators and Human Evolution (Westview Press, 2005). [↩]
- Tigers killed 612 people in the Sundarbans delta of India and Bangladesh between 1975 and 1985. Donna Hart, “Humans as Prey,” Chronicle of Higher Education (Vol. 52, Issue 33, 21 Apr. 2006), at B10. [↩]
- Gillian Hargreaves, “What’s the Future for Circus Animals?” BBC News Magazine (7 Dec. 2007). [↩]
- Jordan Robertson, “Zoo a Crime Scene After Tiger Attack,” Associated Press (26 Dec. 2007). [↩]
- John Han, “Animal Rights Group Calls for Change in Zoo Policy,” Fog City Journal (4 Jan. 2008). [↩]
- “Zoo a Crime Scene After Tiger Attack” (note 4 above). [↩]
- See Julia Whitty, “Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth’s Vanishing Biodiversity,” Mother Jones (25 Apr. 2007). [↩]