The Circus Animals' Desertion


Ruthlessness being the flip side of sentimentality, the circus of the modern world has become victim of our confused ideas about the role of animals in our lives. By proposing a ban on animal circus (which was rejected by a margin of one vote last week by Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Co Council) council members are making a sweeping judgment about a complex social minority, and are moving towards an eradication of a valuable art form.

The 13 to 12 in favour of allowing Togni's Il Florilegio Circus to appear on one of the Council's grounds, indicates a movement against animal circus amongst the Irish people. In England we are further down the line. Many city and councils have within their regulations a total ban on circus shows containing animals. Oxford, Cheltenham, Cambridge, all the London boroughs - the list is long. This legislation does not differentiate between animal types, wild or domestic, or between standards of care or methods of training - it is a sweeping judgment that a circus is inevitably, necessarily, cruel to the animals within its care.

The big wild animal acts grate against the public's understanding of animals, and my feeling is that this is an irreversible tide of feeling. Besides, the psychology of the wild animal is perhaps more impenetrable than that of the domestic one, and we are thus possibly less well equipped to understand what makes a lion or an elephant "happy". My case is for the continued existence within the circus of performing dogs and horses. There is a concept amongst the public that all circuses are the same. Thus if one violation of animal rights on a show is discovered, it is assumed that all other shows must be doing exactly the same thing. This is as wrong as saying that if one parent is abusive towards his or her children, then all parents are. The life that a horse leads in the circus is no more depriving than the life that a horse leads in a racing yard, or a riding school.

Exercise is regular, and the animal has day-to-day contact with human beings that is as much a part of life as its food. Circus horses are stabled in loose boxes or stalls, and in the day time graze in paddocks or on tethers. My assertion is that our relationship with animals is at the moment in state of deep confusion, and that circus has become a victim of this confusion. In the detail of the accusations against circus we can find examples of this. An equine "rest home" offers horses a field in which they can "peacefully" spend the rest of their lives. The proprietors charge the owners a large fee for this service. It sounds compassionate - the reality is horse-worn fields overcrowded with cold, broken down horses fighting for hay in the winter, or for whatever grass there is left in the summer.

The "resting" horse shivers in a field, and the organisation registers itself as a charity; the circus pony, meanwhile, grazes peacefully at the end of a tether on a fresh patch of grass, and becomes a symbol of animal abuse. Sentimentality is the flip side of ruthlessness. It seems that in our society we have a need for one group that will shoulder our guilt towards the natural world. The same ground where show-jumping competitions are encouraged is denied to the circus that has horses on its programme.

The Lipizzaners troupe of white stallions from Vienna may appear at Wembley arena, a group of horses at liberty may not (unless they are called "show horses" and the word "circus" is not used at all). The circus is constantly attacked for the fact that the animals need to be moved from ground to ground. The transporting of horses to dressage competitions every week, cats to cat shows, dogs to their owners' holiday destinations and the jet-set life of the international polo pony are overlooked. There is one rule for the circus, another for the rest of the world. The highly-bred dogs that star in Crufts - combed, scented, tied up with bows, pulled around on short leads, over-bred, over-priced - are the icons of the dog food industry. The circus dog who, due to its enthusiasm for play and interaction, will joyfully jump through a hoop or on to the back of a pony is outlawed. Forbidden. A crime. Our children may not see this gentle art.

The hypocrisy rises to crazy and macabre levels. A TV series documenting the work of a vet followed the case of a young deer with a broken leg. The leg was amputated at the knee, but the deer persisted on bearing weight on this stump. As a result the stump became infected and gangrenous. The vet re-operated, and cut the leg off at the shoulder. The vet admitted he had never done an amputation where the leg was removed so close to the body. The tea-time viewer could thrill to his gallant efforts. The deer was saved. The baby bambi lived, and off it went, staggering and crashing through the undergrowth, condemned to a life at the bottom of its herd's hierarchy, an easy prey for foxes. A collie whose life consisted of being shut in a small flat all day, with a quick afternoon "walk" around a park on a lead, started to exhibit signs of stress, such as tearing down curtains and chewing the sofa.

The bewildered owners hired a pet psychotherapist to help them with the dog. It was a serious case. No one pointed out that a flat is no place for a dog and that a collie in particular needs hours of exercise every day. Dog shrinks, cat plastic surgeons - our misunderstanding of animals takes on a nightmarish, futuristic quality.

Circus animals are trained through negotiation. Bullied horses tell of their training in their work. A well-trained circus horse co-operates as a result of months of quiet training. He is not frightened of the whip, he has no need to be. These are Bertram Mill's words, written in 1938. They perfectly capture the art and the discipline of horse training:

"A horse will suddenly stop at practice and refuse to move; the trainer quietly looks around the ring for something unusual - a shaft of sunlight falling across the tan, a workman's coat of the ring fence, even a small lump in the tan. A quiet, soothing word, the sunbeam is shut out, the coat removed, the tan raked smooth, and the horse, completely reassured, resumes work."

Animal training demands that we enter into the head of the animal and try to figure out why they behave as they do. Good trainers do this, bad ones don't. There are examples of both in the circus. The councils must endeavour to discriminate between the two, between high standards of animal welfare and neglect. Banning the lot is the lazy option. If they don't address themselves to this, then the correct high-quality animal acts will leave the country.

Yasmin Smart, the grand-daughter of Billy Smart, and an exemplary trainer, will now never return to England with her group of Arab stallions. Why should she? The continental audience knows a good act when it sees one, and the applause and the wages reflect this. Over here the circuses are too small, the wages too threadbare, the public suspicious, and the big tops, denied access to the parks of the cities, forced on to wastelands. Thus, in ignorance and prejudice, we impoverish our own culture.

Nell Stroud is a horse trainer and the owner of Gifford's Circus in the UK (0044- 7818-058384). Her autobiography, Josser: days and nights at the circus was published last year, and the paperback version will be published by Virago on April 1st

The Il Florilegio circus runs in Booterstown, Co. Dublin until February 20th. It then tours to Limerick from Febru- ary 23rd to March 5th, to Cork from March 7th-26th, to Galway from March 28th to April 9th, to Waterford from April 12th-18th and from Wexford from April 21st to May 1st. For information and to book phone 1890 923188