[This article was published in CircusMagazine #39 – June 2014]
[Author: Evelyne Coussens – Translation: Craig Weston]
[Copyright: Circuscentrum – Please contact maarten[at]circuscentrum for more information]
‘The circus is back in town,’ sung Bassie and Adriaan, but Bert the Brown Bear and Leo the Lion-tamer won’t be with them this year. A federal ban on the use of wild animals in the circus goes into effect on 10 March, 2014.
Animal Rights organisation Gaia is satisfied and calls the ban a payback for ten years of struggle against the suffering of animals in the circus. The reaction of the circus sector is one of shock, and in an open letter, addressed to all Flemish, Wallonian and Brussels representatives, the European Circus Association (E.C.A) declares that they have been placed before a fait accompli. What one notices in talks with all parties involved is that they are all in agreement with the fact that animal well-being is important. Circus members as well as animal rights organisations claim a sincere ethical position in the question of animal suffering, and each declare a desire for mutual understanding. “There is not a single Flemish circus that questions the need for animal well-being,” writes the Circuscentrum in a reaction on its website.2 An emphatic chairman of GAIA, Michel Vandenbosch declares, “We are not against the circuses”. So where is the fork in the road?
“I myself don’t even have a circus,” sighs Christian Nolens at the end of a long discussion. The spokesman for the E.C.A. was taken by the magic of the circus as a child, and he remains an aficionado. He’s very unhappy with the federal ban. He reiterates on several occasions that animal welfare is important for the circuses, but this legislation throws out the baby with the bathwater: the ethically responsible circuses are pigeonholed together with all the others. Nolens: “The problem is most acute with a few small pirate circuses that come from abroad. They are not up to regulation in anything, they leave their pitch in horrible condition, and they don’t show the slightest respect for animal protection laws. And it’s they who compromise the entire sector. They’re the culprit when activists declare, ‘That’s circus’. But that’s not circus.”
For Nolens, the lawmaker has to make a distinction between the circuses of quality and those circuses who are not, so that the one does not suffer from the perception brought on by the other. Because Nolens realises that perception and communication are delicate: “There is an imbalance in communication. The traveling circuses are made up of a number of families who work very hard and give their very best. They are not always capable of defending themselves. It’s all they can do to keep their identity and defend their share of the market. GAIA comes to the cities and towns with a clear standpoint and an obvious goal. It’s easier for them to sell their argument.” A true statement, judging by the fact that even before the federal ban went into effect, more than 130 Flemish cities and municipalities signed a charter declaring that circuses with wild animals would not be allowed within their municipal limits. The result of GAIA’s first-rate communication?
No, says Vandenbosch, the municipalities themselves had had it with the circuses. He talks about accidents and abuses: “Animals were left behind, monkeys escaped from their cages, a tiger once wounded a toddler. Some circuses provoked the municipality: they lied about the presence of animals, put their posters everywhere, tapped off electricity…” The city of Sint-Truiden, one of the first to sign the charter, confirms there were problems. Carl Nijssens (CD&V), alderman for Health in Sint-Truiden: “The circuses usually put up their tents in a parking lot in the centre of town. A bare, concrete surface. There were complaints from townspeople who saw incidents of animal abuse with their own eyes. Sint-Truiden aspires to be an animal-friendly city.” The city of Ghent also cites practical and ethical reasons for the fact that circuses with wild animals have been forbidden in the city since 2003. Dirk Bogaert, from the cabinet of alderman for the environment Tine Heyse (Groen), confirms that the argument for the measure is based on safety-risks but also on the fact that wild animals belong in their natural biotope.”
Practical problems could perhaps be put in the category with which Christian Nolens himself would not contend: a few rotten apples spoil the bunch. But what about the ethical question? Do wild animals indeed belong at home in their natural biotope? And does that also count for those animals born in captivity? Nolens doesn’t think so: “Most circus animals are lovingly raised by their regular trainer. They are well fed and cared for. In Great Britain there is research that shows that animals raised by their trainers are not unhappy, that they, on the contrary, live longer than others of their species found in the wild. And looking at the natural biotope: last year 35.000 elephants were massacred in Africa for economic reasons. Here in Europe we are talking about a maximum of 200 circus elephants. You have to put things a bit into perspective, hé.” Theatre-maker and circus lover Arne Sierens concurs: “It is crucial that there is no abuse. But let’s not be hypocritical. Or do we have to close all the zoos? Pandas don’t belong here, they belong in China.”
For Michel Vandenbosch the discussion around good or less good living situations is not a real discussion. Vandenbosch: “Wild animals make big demands on their biotope. A tiger in the wild can travel 30,000 kilometres. A circus cannot provide those kinds of conditions, no matter how good their intentions might be.” Sven Heyndrickx, adjunct-spokesman of the FOD Department of Public Health: “In 2013 the Council for animal welfare decided to evaluate the laws then in effect. To do this they visited eight circuses. It turns out that with the domesticated animals the law was followed pretty closely, but that not one circus managed to live up to the standards set for wild animals. Different circus bosses admitted that it would be impossible to comply with the standards set for the wild animals.”
But are ‘wild’ animals real indispensable for a circus? Can’t they just be replaced by their tamer brothers? Out of the question, says Christian Nolens, wild animals are an intrinsic part of the identity of a circus and are an inalienable part of the tradition. Arne Sierens agrees: “as a young boy I saw quite a lot of circus and yes, those animals belong there. What’s more, they can give us something. In the West there is so little contact between man and animal, while that is so important. Circus offers a platform for that contact.” Nolens offers some figures: “In Germany they did a study: 85% of the visitors who went to the circus, came to see the wild animals.” Germany is not Flanders, because Michel Vandenbosch also produces some figures: “There is no social support for wild animals in the circus – 67% of the Flemish people believe that no animal has a place in the circus.” So the figures can be interpreted again and again and don’t seem to offer much light in this particular case.
In passing, Sierens offered an argument which is perhaps important: can the circus which handles its animals well not be a source of inspiration? Could it not contribute to the love for animals, and be an example for children of how one can handle animals with respect?
Vandenbosch staggers: “How can a child develop respect for animals through seeing them locked up in a cage? I fail to see the didactic value in that. Children learn absolutely nothing in this situation about the true being and nature of the animal.” No, in the eyes of the frontman of GAIA, holding on stubbornly to traditions with no chance of survival is just absurd. Absurd and painful, because the downfall of the circus is the last thing that Vandenbosch wants to see. What’s more, he just recently enjoyed himself immensely at a circus presentation. Vandenbosch: “I was a guest at Circus Pipo, that is exemplary in the care of its animals, and follows the norms of the law when it comes to which domesticated and exotic sorts of animals are allowed: lamas, cattle, horses, geese,…I had a wonderful afternoon there, saw many touching acts, I was impressed. So it is possible to put together a great circus show without wild animals.” What’s more, according to Vandenbosch it is the only option: “Several circuses have understood that the use of wild animals is not part of the circus of the future. Instead of obsessively holding on to the past the circus sector would do better to use its creativity in imagining an attractive alternative, with or without domestic animals.” The evolution is unstoppable: “There is no longer social support for a circus with wild animals. It is a lost cause.”
It is a fact that in Belgium the keeping of wild animals had pretty much spontaneously died out, even before a law came into effect. That has everything to do with a broader crisis in which circuses found themselves since last century, in the 70’s. Working with wild animals goes back to colonial times and the fascination of the nineteenth century for all things exotic. The circuses were the traveling equivalent of the zoos. The less mobile citizens of towns and small cities could catch a glimpse of a wonderful other world. The animals were also dressed for effect, in their role as ‘strange’ beings: they had to roar and show their claws, the tamer had to crack his whip – that is what the audience expected. Meanwhile, times have changed. Since the 60’s the amount and types of entertainment on offer has grown exponentially, making it very difficult for the circuses to compete. At the same time, the government demands more and more specific investment to guarantee the welfare of the animals. Falling numbers of visitors and increase in investment costs led many circuses to voluntarily give up their wild animals. Some of them would hire an act with wild animals from outside the circus for a season. But now that is also no longer possible. Nolens: “People who have contracted acts for this coming season, are now faced with real financial headaches.”
These transitional problems have everything to do with the speed in which these laws have come into effect. In an open letter from the E.C.A., the fact that the circus sector was not consulted about the new law, combined with a seeming lack of scientific research to support the law, are sources of bitter resentment. There is something more to be said about both accusations. The fact is that the law came through a proposal from the cabinet of Laurette Onkelinx, who let herself be advised by the Council for Animal Welfare. The mission statement of the Council is to be found on the website of the FOD Department for Public Health: ‘The Council for Animal Welfare gives advice to the Minister of Public health about subjects which pertain to animal welfare. (…) The advice takes into account the most recent scientific, ethic and social information.’3 In the Council are seated representatives for animal rights societies, (like Michel Vandenbosch) but also representatives of ‘producers, store owners and consumers’ (like Eric Mijten of the Farmers Union) and ‘veterinarians’ (Thierry Tramasure from the High Council of the Order of Veterinarians). What’s more, the Council has an Office, wherein academic authorities in animal welfare are seated. On the other hand, it is also true that there is no representative from the circus sector in the Council. Only ANDIBEL (Belgian federation of professional salesmen of birds, pets and accessories) includes a few circuses among its members. The representative from ANDIBEL in the Council did bring out a minority opinion objecting to the ban.
Was the circus sector sufficiently consulted? According to Vandenbosch different representatives were heard in the cabinet. Christian Nolens doesn’t deny that, but fears that the guests were not carefully chosen: “Perhaps they spoke with people for whom the ban would be a good thing. But those people had no feel for the sector and did not represent the profession.” The organisation which does officially represent the sector is the Circuscentrum. Of course this Flemish organisation does not fall under federal authority, but for a federal lawmaker with even a modicum of curiosity about the intricacies of the issue, the Circuscentrum would have been a first and obvious partner in the discussion. From the Department of Public Health comes a rather lame defence: “It is unfortunately not possible to hear all the parties involved in the question.” Sven Heyndrickx reiterates that ANDIBEL represents the circuses. The Circuscentrum formally confirms that they were at no time consulted. Vandenbosch doesn’t find this to be odd: “I have the feeling that the travelling circuses don’t feel like the Circuscentrum represents them. At least that was the case with the circuses I spoke to.” The cabinet Onkelinx has no comment, beyond a dry communiqué that the advice from the Council for Animal Welfare was followed. The press release of 12 July 2013 does point specifically to the European context: ‘Belgium joins Austria, who has already banned these animals and the other member-countries where a partial ban exists (Germany, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden). Member nations like Great Britain and the Netherlands are deliberating a similar ban in the near future.’ 4 In Austria the ban has been in effect since 2004. In 2012 the Netherlands asked the European Commission if a European advice could be formed about the use of wild animals.
Christian Nolens also places his hope in Europe – not of course for the enforcement of a general ban, but rather for the implementation of an all-encompassing legislation which would establish stricter and more intricate procedures for the use of wild animals. Nolens is a fiery advocate for a European law which would function with licenses: only circuses with a quality standard in transportation, upkeep, care, hygiene, feeding,…would qualify for such a license. Equally he hopes to find a listening ear within the lower administrations via the E.C.A.. The sixth state-reform brings with it a transfer of the powers regarding animal welfare to a Flemish ministry – the E.C.A. will ask that minister to re-look at the law.
A formal complaint filed to the constitutional court about the manner that the law was created is possible, but that seems to Nolens like a final straw. He sees more benefit in a constructive dialogue between all involved parties.
A look at the bigger picture shows that both parties share concern for animal welfare, but their concern leads them to radically different approaches to a solution. The circus sector wishes to see a working method which goes from the bottom up, in a system determined by precedent, in which the ‘good students’ are rewarded and the bad ones punished. At present, the law works from the top down, in a system governed by principle, where there are no ‘good students’ because it is no longer possible to be one. Both paradigms yield their losers: if the circuses cut corners on a law which is less absolute, then it would be the animals who lose, but with the law as it stands the losers will be those circuses who cannot adapt quickly enough to this mandatory order for change. How modest or ambitious should a law be? Fascinating material.
>> What does the young generation think?
Alexander Vantournhout: “The traditional circus does indeed find its origins in the handling of animals. There is no other art-form in which man and animal work as closely together as in the circus. It would be a shame if something like that were to disappear.”
Willem Balduyck (Circus Katoen): “My childhood memories of those acts were positive, but since I have become an adult those acts can sometimes be painful. One of my worst examples: Wintercircus, where I saw a head-banging elephant, while some of the audience had to put their hands over their ears to protect themselves from the volume of the music. I find that a real pity!”
Michiel Deprez: “I think that working with wild animals is an important and beautiful part of the history of circus, something that speaks to the imagination. But I don’t think that it is something we need to carry on into the future. I have never worked with animals myself, but if I get too old to juggle, then perhaps I will start a circus made up exclusively with cats and dogs and hamsters and pigeons and goldfish and….”
>> What does Danny Ronaldo think?
“Circus Ronaldo is a circus without animals. This is a conscious artistic choice, but we are not advocates of a ban on animals in the circus. In the circus, but also in the whole wider world, there are still situations that surely make no sense. But it is possible to look at things differently.
If we look at the people who work with animals we see three groups:
1. People who love their animals with heart and soul, who are capable of looking deeply into what an animal is and doing something beautiful with that. People who take the nature of that animal into themselves and look at how they can learn and what they can identify in each other. People with the knowledge to care for these animals and who have the material means to give these animals a home.
2. The same people with just as much love and knowledge but without the material means. Often they cut corners on their own living conditions, in an attempt to provide their animals with the best existence they can. Such people should be supported by the government to bring their lifes-work with animals to fruition.
3. People with absolutely no feeling for their animals. People who look at their animals only as commercial objects and a source of income.
If we look at the international world of circus there has been a huge improvement in the last years. The work however, is not yet finished. A total ban brings to a halt all the improvements to come. A ban is no solution. Those who do it in a horrible way will just continue. If we want to find the right path to a lovely future where man and animal live in perfect symbiosis, this can only happen in a legal way. Open, clear and transparent.