Animals on Stage

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.See Donna Hart and Robert Sussman: Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators and Human Evolution (Westview Press, 2005). Even today, in their natural habitats, the nonhuman great apes are vulnerable to leopards and lions — as are the human ones.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.

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.”Gillian Hargreaves, “What’s the Future for Circus Animals?” BBC News Magazine (7 Dec. 2007).

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.Jordan Robertson, “Zoo a Crime Scene After Tiger Attack,” Associated Press (26 Dec. 2007). 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.”John Han, “Animal Rights Group Calls for Change in Zoo Policy,” Fog City Journal (4 Jan. 2008).

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.“Zoo a Crime Scene After Tiger Attack” (note 4 above). 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.See Julia Whitty, “Gone: Mass Extinction and the Hazards of Earth’s Vanishing Biodiversity,” Mother Jones (25 Apr. 2007).

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.


Lee Hall teaches environmental law, and has authored several books and articles on animal rights, including the forthcoming on ,em>Their Own Terms: The Handbook. Animal Rights for the Classroom and the Community (2015). Lee has worked for 13 years in non-profit environmental and animal advocacy. Follow Lee on Twitter: @Animal_Law Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Jeff Horton, Florida said on January 8th, 2008 at 11:57am #
    Tatiana died 25 Dec-2007, at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department, when she escaped from her enclosure. Was Tatiana provoked? Why was there a bloody shoe found inside her enclosure? Had they been drinking before going into the San Francisco Zoo? If anything get boys on under age drinking or open container found inside the car! That’s if you don’t have enough on provoking the tiger. Why didn’t Tatiana get out of her enclosure before, any other day? Why that day? What about the witness that came forward? I really feel, Tatiana is the true victim here. In time, the truth will come out. It’s sad that a person had to die and others injured, but if… if the tiger was provoked or abused by so called hands, well they got what they deserved. We expect a wild animal to live by our rules, in a cage knowing this can never be. The deep desire to be free is in all of us. Even if she was caught and put back into her cage, I think there might have been a cry to put her down anyways. Even for a brief moment if she felt free, makes me smile & heart glow with joy. For the last minutes of her life she knew, what it felt to have freedom.

  2. Dustin Rhodes said on January 8th, 2008 at 12:02pm #

    Wonderful piece.

    I am anxious to know where the discussion goes. Like so many other forms of domination that humans take for granted, clearly zoos and circuses are hot buttons—as we justify the subjugation away by (in the case of zoos) saying it’s an act of ecology. And the circus: I’ve actually never heard anyone offer a compelling explanation/justification/reason/excuse.

    Dustin Rhodes

    I thought your concluding paragraph was particularly profound; humans don’t ever want to consider or confront what we really do to animals: the ones we eat, the ones we lock behind bars in zoos far away from their natural habitats; the animals we dress up and make march around in costumes to entertain our children (so that they learn right away that animals possess no inherent value or worth); the animals we lasso and shock and drag to the ground in rodeos; the animals we tie up and ignore in our backyards; the animals we shoot and kill for sport and pleasure. Literally, I could go on and on.

    As misanthropic as it might sound to say it, when I hear about events like the one in San Francisco–a wild animal has killed another human–it makes me very sad; sad because of all the conditions that humans have put in place–for millenia–to guarantee such an event. What’s stopping us from understanding the inevitability? Humans should have a good frame of reference: the more we remove ourselves from Nature, from community, from loving relationships, the more, we, too, become insane; the more likely we are to “strike out” against our fellow humans. We need not look too far or too closely to see the parallels. They are obvious and yet invisible, it seems.

    When will animals–for ALL OF US–become beings that elicit our deep respect, our utmost compassion, our willingness to allow them free lives lived according to their own terms?

  3. DoRight said on January 8th, 2008 at 6:48pm #

    On December 23, 2006, or thereabouts, Tatiana should have been either put down or sent to a sanctuary. Shame on the SF Zoo! Shame on them for not seeing the obvious, one year before this present debacle began! I remember thinking, back then, in December 2006, there is going to be more trouble involving this cat in this zoo. Sadly, I was right.

  4. maryb said on January 9th, 2008 at 10:49am #

    If parents and relatives stopped thinking that taking children to a circus or a zoo was a treat, these temples of animal torture would soon die out. I am in my late sixties and have only been to a zoo once, namely London Zoo in the 60’s. I was so appalled at the pathetic sight of Guy the Gorilla and the pacing of the big cats turned mad by their confinement, that I have never been again. I can also still remember the stench of the place. Today on Sky News we are being subjected to the sight of a captive Polar Bear in a zoo! in Germany mistreating her new cub because she lacks the natural mothering skills. Hardly surprising if you ask the question ‘How did she get put in the zoo in the first place’. Cruel, torture and torment, and worse than man’s inhumanity to man is man’s inhumanity to animals.

  5. Ellie Maldonado said on January 10th, 2008 at 9:02pm #

    Great article! Blaming the tiger, the human victims, or this particular zoo does not address the root of this tragedy– lack of respect for non-human animals. Holding animals captive, whether in a zoo, circus, or so-called sanctuary that puts them on public display, will lead to these tragedies time and again.

  6. Victoria said on January 15th, 2008 at 1:59pm #

    Being a Bay Area resident, there were other details surrounding this tragedy. When the police officers arrived at the scene, the tiger was quietly sitting/reclining (and obviously out of the zoo enclosure) close to the other injured person.

    Then the police officers RUSHED FORWARD towards the tiger. At that moment, the animal lunged . Maybe if they had kept a safe distance, the tiger would not have reacted instinctly to protect itself. I wonder why the police nor the zoo staff were equipped with tranquilizer or stun guns.

    It seems keeping wild animals in zoos is an acceptable practice, but if they act wild or protective or fail to conform to our human standards of behavior, it’s permissable to just kill them, endangered or not. And the argument that zoos are necessary for the “educational” or “enlightening” opportunity to view animals that could not be seen otherwise may be weakening. Hey, I may never see Mt. Kilamanjaro in person, but that doesn’t mean you blast off the top and put it in a museum, but if someone could accomplish that and make $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ doing so, I wouldn’t be surprised. However, animal capture and exploitation is much more easier and profitable and will contine until people stop visiting zoos.

  7. lee said on January 22nd, 2008 at 10:10am #

    The animal rights people have caused much noise about the conclusionsd of the circus report,yet if it came to the conclusion they were hoping for they would of praised it.I think the scientists know more then any animal rights protester.And well were on the subject of captive animals are we to ban pet dogs too.I dont see anything normal in keeping a dog locked in house or flat,you controlling when it can go out,when it eats,when it goes to the toilet. If you think thats normal you are badly mistaken? Circuses should come into line with the zoo licensing act,but will that even silence the do-gooders who know nothing about animals? i dont think so.
    The author of the article discribes the Great British Circus Website as tacky.He must of had his eyes closed when looking over this website.
    Who are you above to say weather parents should or should nt take there children to zoos or circuses. We live in a free country.We dont want dictators.If you people beleive in that ,then you should get the hell out of here.Talking of dictators,who the hell do ALF think they hell with them all.They are a group of small minded terriosts.