Why I Will Never Return to the Circus

This post was a particularly difficult one for me to write, because I haven't written much at all about social causes/issues on this blog.

However, as one of my blogging resolutions for 2014 is to be ruthlessly honest - I feel that I need to throw this out there.


Recently, over Christmas, I was spending some holiday time down at the coast with my family and we drove past a large, dusty field where a circus tent was being put up.  The caravans of all the performers were lined around the outside as well as the cages for all the animals.

My sister and I had never been to a circus, so we decided that we wanted to go and see what it was all about the following day.  In my complete ignorance, I had no idea of what to expect - but I was keen to experience this type of entertainment in the flesh - not willing to take Hollywood at its word.

As we drove up to the venue the following day there were about 5 or 6 young girls (probably in their late teens) handing out pamphlets at the robot with the headline:

"A lifetime of captivity for your entertainment!"

I didn't really think much of it at the time, just brushing it aside as we tend to do with most pamphlets handed out at street corners.  We parked, paid for our tickets, and took our seats inside the Big Top - along with a few hundred other South Africans.  Inside the tent, high fences circled the arena for the first act - the lions and the tigers.

The lights dimmed and the music began to play...

A lion tamer from the USA walked into the ring followed by a wide variety of large cats, including both male and female white lions and a feisty white tiger that definitely grabbed everyone's attention.  All in all there were about 8 of these magnificent animals and they were paraded around for everyone to see.  They jumped through hoops and 'waved' at the audience - performing small gimmicks for the delight of the little kids and the amazement of their star-eyed parents.

Yet, as I watched, something didn't sit well with me.

Everywhere those beautiful creatures walked, the tamer's whip followed closely behind, herding them into place and forcing them into the next trick.  This sharp dose of pain was rewarded with a small treat roughly stabbed onto the edge of his long stick - to be enjoyed after each trick.  With the whip following swiftly afterwards...

The whip and the treat, pain and reward, ruled their life.

Their eyes looked deep and weary, suffering under the whims of over-enthusiastic audience members - who were relishing the spectacle now, at this present moment, but would forget the entire experience the moment they left the tent and could get back onto Facebook and Twitter.

Yet, the animals would receive no such release.  Carted back into the tiny cages which didn't allow more than 2 steps in any direction - to be used as 'entertainment' again for the next day's audience.  My heart broke for these magnificent animals, breathtakingly beautiful but at the same time painstakingly weary.

The experience left a very bitter taste in my mouth, especially after witnessing some similar situations at the Shanghai Zoo, where I distinctly remember a huge male lion pawing at the confines of the 2x2 box he was in, growling with fierce contempt.

For an hour of entertainment, so easily forgotten, is it worth it?

Do we owe the wonderful animals of our continent a better life?

How do we change it?


Returning to the girls with the pamphlets at the robot - their approach seems like the most obvious way to enact change in this regard, to remove animals from the circus.  Boycotting the entertainment is a classic economics move - by removing the demand, we force circuses to change their act.  It seems like the most practical way to do it.

However, at the same time, perhaps we need to rely more on human empathy?  I feel that even if a small boycott was successful, it is a temporary solution - treating the symptoms as opposed to the cause.  Even as you reach people, a new wave of families come through and the cycle continues.  You'll end up boycotting forever!

The fact that I actually went and saw the performance and felt for the animals, compelled me to write this post and to talk about the issue - something that would have never happened if I had simply obeyed the pamphlet and boycotted the circus - letting another willing family fill my seat.  Maybe we need to let people experience that heartache in order to catalyse change?

Social Proof / Individual Empathy ?

I don't know, it's a difficult one.

What do you think?


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