Yesterday, I took part in my first circus demonstration. In fact it was my first time protesting at the location of the organisation or practice that was the subject of our attention.
I prepared myself for the event by doing the usual – reading up on problems within the industry. I also managed to watch a related documentary, “Tyke: Elephant Outlaw.”
First of all I’ll give you a quick summary of the documentary. It’s the story behind a tragic turn of events in Hawaii where an Elephant (named Tyke, surprisingly) turned on her trainers backstage during a show, killing one and hurting another. She then fled from the commotion of the circus tent and was followed and ultimately shot, nearly a hundred times, before succumbing to the barrage of bullets, and dying on the street.
It was a really sad story that highlighted some very questionable training techniques, which seemed to offer evidence contrary to the ‘positive reinforcement’ line given by the circus. This all took place in 1994, so whilst I accept, or rather hope, that practices have improved, the whole sorry story would never have occurred if we’d simply respected these animals and allowed them the dignity of a natural existence.
The thing that really struck me about the commentary from the ‘pro-circus’ contributors was the selfish language they used for justification. Lots of ‘I enjoy it’ or ‘it’s a fond childhood memory of mine’ (I’m not quoting verbatim) that unintentionally highlights the real problems that underline the ‘animal for entertainment’ industries. Even if welfare isn’t an issue and they are physically OK, when we use animals for our pleasure, all consideration for the animal is secondary. We certainly don’t need circuses to entertain us with animals. In fact with Cirque du Soleil and others so popular, I find it hard to see what animal acts really offer to the show. The level of training and talent at a company like Cirque du Soleil far exceeds that involved in getting a pony to stand on its hind legs or a lion to jump through hoops.
Back to the protest. It was located in a prime position by the main road in Gosford – a deliberate move by the circus for good exposure I’m sure, but one that obviously benefitted us too. We were immediately greeted by car ‘toots’ showing support for our message, something that was a constant throughout the 2-hour stand. Quite comically, after just a couple of minutes we received our first ‘get a real job’ heckle. Hilarious, not just because it was a Sunday, but also because I was surrounded by hard working, like-minded people who dedicate so much of their spare time away from holding down regular jobs or study schedules to stand up for the voiceless animals we share the planet with.
Having done some reading up on the circus beforehand and discussing it with the veterans in the group, it was good to know we weren’t looking at extreme animal abuse to the degree I have seen in other footage and documentation. However, the fact that monkeys are in small cages, and lions don’t have a complete life being able to fulfill their natural instincts is still a situation that has no place in the world today. We know so much about these animals now that to simply justify their life behind bars because ‘they don’t know any different’ is ignoring one of the most fascinating things about the animal kingdom, and that is the instinct ingrained in their DNA.
A short while in to the peaceful protest some representatives from the circus came out to photograph us in action. They were taking exception to one sign in particular, and although the sign, in context, was valid, the decision was made to replace it with another in the spirit of the peaceful protest. Choosing your fights is half the battle.
A couple of trainers and a lady who I presumed was one of the owners of the circus stood with us for a while to talk about the issues we have. I think I’m a reflective thinker, and as such became a silent observer of the discussions. It started quite agitated to begin with, on both sides, but as it progressed I started to warm to the ‘enemy’ in front of me. I honestly believe they think they are doing OK by the animals in their care. I’m pretty sure they take care of the animals, and enjoy all the interactions they have, but as the organiser of the event from Animal Liberation NSW put during discussions ‘anyone can feed an animal’. You see the mental wellbeing is equally important in the fulfillment of a happy life of any sentient being on the planet. If you’re undecided about this or your position on this matter as a whole I would implore you to research this by watching documentaries and reading text from unbiased sources.
In many ways we are not so different from those debating the points with us, and I have no doubt we share a lot of common ground. They are clearly animal lovers. I just don’t think they have taken that love and thought process all the way through to the logical conclusion that all vegans have arrived at. To love animals is to want what is best for them. All animals want to be alive. All animals have a behavioral instinct that can’t be ignored. No animal belongs to us, and we have no right to interact with them, no matter how much we think we love them.
I once watched a program on TV where a zoo worker was trying to justify the existence of zoos. And this was a pretty rubbish zoo with small enclosures and a lot of isolation and concrete. The justification was that ‘not everybody can afford to go to Africa and see them in the wild’. Well, that implies that we have a right to have our wants fulfilled at the expense of non-human animals. That is Speciesism, something the human race will look back on in 100 years, hopefully sooner, with shame.
One of the circus employees commented that we should be out there fighting for the real crimes against animals, referring to factory farming conditions, dairy practices etc. Whilst I agree with this sentiment, we could all quite confidentially retort that we do, and I guess that raises the question that if this circus is one that loves animals, and recognises other atrocities endured by farmed animals, then what are THEY doing. Not much I suspect. It’s a common tool used to disarm someone speaking out against a form of animal abuse – ‘but what about…?
We, and by ‘we’ I am referring to a broad group of animal activists I have met over the last 18 months or so, are doing everything we can with the resources we have to make the planet a better place for all animals. It is unreasonable to judge us on our perfection or lack thereof, when our intention is clear through tireless activity.
There are many causes to fight for when it comes to animal activism, and it’s hard to pinpoint what is the most urgent. I look at it as what is most urgent and what can gain make some impact today, because along with the big ongoing, urgent issues of factory farming, shark culling etc., it is creating a mind shift across the board that is going to create a more compassionate society. I don’t think a ban on animals for entertainment is that far away and when it does happen, and rodeos, greyhound racing and animals in circuses do go away, that sends a message to the masses about what isn’t acceptable. All animal rights violations need to be heard. All of those animals suffering, whether in a lab or a small cage in Gosford on the side of the road, deserve a voice.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the confrontations that occurred yesterday, but I don’t think I was expecting to warm to the people from the circus. Don’t get me wrong, I disagree with their opinions and actions, but I understand where their defensiveness comes from. We are challenging a way of life and accusing them of animal abuse, even if it’s not in physical form. The view they have isn’t one they have decided upon on a whim. For them, a lot like an average meat eating family, it is a socially acceptable standard. On one hand there is acknowledgment that the animals in their care don’t think like humans when justifying the incarceration they are sentenced to when plucked from the wild (or in the case of this circus are born in to) but then that logic isn’t applied when we talk about instincts. For a human existence, a life without fear of predators or where your next meal has to come from is now a basic right (although not universally available), but I don’t believe this is a desire, or rather a priority, for an animal if it means the expense of a full and varied life in the wild or at the very least in a sanctuary.
I’m still pretty green in terms of animal rights activism, but one thing I do know is that the biggest challenge we face is speciesism, and specifically the mindset we, as humans, have allowed to be OK – that being our arrogance to put our needs, wants and desires ahead of everything else that we share the planet with. The concept that we share the planet with other living animals and organisms is lost on many. We don’t share the planet, not equally anyway. We throw the odd crumb to other species, enough so we can sleep at night, but that is all. It is a complicated mess we have to unravel and we need to prioritise our battles. We have daily occurrences that need voicing like the live export issues here in Australia – thousands of animals still stuck on a ship as I write – factory farm practices across the globe, whaling and shark and dolphin slaughter unbalancing our oceans. But we also have the battles that are close to victory, like the banning of animals for entertainment in circuses.
The fight is not just to end the pain and suffering that is endured by victims in factory farms or to stop the mega-trawlers and the devastation they cause to our oceans, but it is about a widespread mindset shift away from using animals as a commodity. And every time we received another beep of support from a passer by, it felt like that mindset was spreading – there IS no excuse for animal abuse.