[This article was published in CircusMagazine #52 – September 2017]
[Author: Alexander Wijsen – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum.be for more information]
In Belgium the discussion around animals in the circus came to a conclusion quite some time ago. Since 2014 the rules have been clear. The dust has settled and pretty much everyone has accepted the verdict. Can your animal survive life in a petting farm? Then it can probably perform under the big top. If your animal would wreak bloody havoc in a petting farm (or just flatten the place), then you can forget your dreams of a circus career in Belgium and head for the border. But even across the border in Germany, there’s change in the wind.
In Germany the discussion on circus animal welfare rages on. Performing animals are still permitted in the circus, however many communities are refusing to grant permits to circuses with ‘wild’ animals. Since the cities have no legal grounds to refuse those circuses, several municipalities have been overruled by the courts. A ban can only be invoked at a federal level. Four top German circuses are reacting quite differently to this controversy, and each one has their arguments. Complete with the pros and cons, here are the different strategies.
Who: Circus Krone.
What: The largest traditional circus in Europe. Krone travels throughout Germany with some 200 animals, much to the chagrin of animal welfare activists. The circus is proprietor of the winter circus de Kronebau in Munich, where it presents three different programs each winter.
How: Under the motto the best defence is a good offence, the largest circus in Europe is fighting back on different fronts. A petition with 50,000 signatures has recently been handed over to the Bavarian Parliament in support of keeping animals in the circus. Director Martin Lacey, a trainer of animals of prey himself, personally collected the signatures after each performance for weeks on end. On another front, Krone has taken several municipalities and activists to court, in many cases winning the battle. It is very much in the interest of the circus to maintain its right to keep animals in the circus. Krone not only travels with some 300 employees, but has an enormous menagerie with a large group of lions and tigers, a herd of elephants and a rhinoceros. There’s an official veterinarian who comes almost every week to inspect the animals’ welfare, making Krone one of the most heavily inspected animal-related companies in Germany. Realising that they are in a ‘now or never’ situation, Krone is working overtime to get public opinion on their side. During the winter months in Munich as well as during the summer tours, Krone invites entire schools on a regular basis to open rehearsals and animal training sessions. The regular public is also welcome to get information about how the animals are trained. At the same time Martin Lacey has initiated the ‘Lacey Fund’, which explains in even more depth the rightful place wild animals have in the circus, aiming to prove that animals can be kept in the circus in a correct manner.
DON’T MAKE WAVES / MAKE THE BEST OF IT
Who: Circus Carl Busch.
What: Large German traditional circus, established in 1891. Older, but one size smaller than Krone.
How: Busch (like every circus) needs their license and the right to perform. To that end, they’ve realised that compromise can get them further than a lawsuit. As a result, Busch has accepted to perform without wild animals on several occasions, if it pleased the municipality. For some it may seem a hypocritical and opportunistic approach, but for others it’s just common sense. At any rate the Busch audiences in Heilbronn, Bremen and Würzburg were treated to performances without elephants in the ring. Busch does have the advantage of owning only two elephants that they are obliged to leave at home (or hide somewhere) in order to comply with city demands. It’s a bit easier finding a babysitter for two pachyderms than for the entire zoo of Circus Krone.
FAREWELL TO ALL THE ANIMALS
Who: Circus Roncalli.
What: Nostalgic, meticulously cared for retro-circus.
How: Roncalli is still the odd man out. The Traumcircus (Dream Circus) that Bernhard Paul started up in 1976, initially appealed to a theatre audience. There were wild animals, but by the 90’s they got rid of the lions and the tigers. Roncalli wants to offer a world of poetry and clowns, and wild animals don’t fit in that picture. A few years ago the circus expressly renounced the use of wild animals in the circus, and happily put it on all of their posters: “Keine Angst vor Wilden Tieren, wir haben keine!” (“No need to fear the wild animals, we don’t have any”). A marketing strategy that was less than appreciated by their peers. The only animal act you could still catch in Circus Roncalli was a wonderful number with a horse, by no accident the kind of act that gave birth to the classical circus centuries ago. In April of 2017 it was announced that even that period was over. Bernhard Paul is completing his transformation to Circustheater Roncalli, and as of 2018 all animals will be gone. Of course he has every right to do what he wants. But the fact that he’s gone to the press with that decision, and made a point of more or less setting himself apart from every other traditional circus, is something that neither his colleagues nor the VDCU (the alliance of German circus concerns) are very happy about.
IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH US
Who: Circus FlicFlac.
What: Hardcore acrobatic and stunt circus.
How: FlicFlac decided from the very beginning not to work with animals. They’ve just replaced roaring lions and tigers with roaring motorcycles! By now FlicFlac’s audience knows what they can expect: a raw cocktail of stuntmen and circus artists. Animals just don’t fit in the picture. It’s an artistic choice, but that doesn’t mean that FlicFlac is against circus animals per se. A few years ago, when PETA awarded them a prize for animal rights because they had proven that a circus without animals can work, the directors of FlicFlac immediately sent the prize back. They had no desire to be embraced by the animal rights movement. FlicFlac shrugs its shoulders at the entire animal rights discussion and continues to do what they are good at: making ferociously good circus, without the ferocious animals.
For many circus lovers, a classic circus without wild animals is like a bar without beer. To them, animals, and especially the wild animals, are an inseparable part of the circus. However, the social acceptance of that practice seems to diminish with every new year, and contemporary circus has shown that successful alternatives to the wild animals do exist. But the opposite is also true: circuses with wild animals remain wildly popular – attendance figures show that there is still an enormous audience for that style of circus.
The most recent figures from the German Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture (although slightly dated, going back to 2012) indicate that there are 141 German circuses that still work with wild animals, altogether some 900 of them. If all those circuses were to employ the same tactics as Circus Krone, the German circus audience would undoubtedly continue to be treated to wild animals in the ring for years to come. But if some of those circuses choose to follow shorter term thinking, and go the opportunistic route, or if some new circus-animal scandals were to come to light, it could all be finished very soon. In that case the German government would be more than happy to follow the example of their neighbours in Belgium, Austria and the Netherlands, and bring in their own Wildtierverbot im Zirkus.
About the author
Alexander Wijsen works in marketing, and has a passion for circus. He loves to stick his head through the red curtain and take a look at the financial reality that makes artistic dreams (im)possible.