Animal Welfare Bill is Not Just About Tigers in the Circus!

The Animal Welfare Bill is up for discussion in Parliament. “Circuses” reported The Stage “will be bracing themselves for another stint as the whipping boys of the animal welfare lobby”. But circuses are not alone in using animals for entertainment writes Equity Variety and Circus Councillor Chris Barltrop.

When talking of ‘performing animals’, it is very easy to conjure up an emotive image of a tiger in a cage, and to say ‘that’s not right in the modern world’. Repeated scientific studies show that trained animals can be very happy in circuses and similar surroundings.

But there is more to the use of trained animals in entertainment than lions or tigers behind bars. The old lady walking her poodle down the street in a film is using a trained animal as is the handler of the spider that runs up the candlestick in a horror film. I saw a Don Giovanni at Edinburgh where an aria was performed on the back of a horse. How about Ducktastic, recently in the West End, with live ducks heavily featured?

We need to be careful about backing the Animal Welfare Bill — especially as the RSPCA, which is against any use of trained animals in entertainment, will have an official role under the legislation.

As far as my own field of circus is concerned, I cannot help feeling this is a witch-hunt — and I mean that phrase literally. Back in the 1580’s, the horse-trainer Banks is reputed to have been charged with witchcraft by those who could not believe his horse was simply a trained animal.
Old attitudes die hard, and some of those in modern times who witness the rapport between animal and trainer are only too ready to believe tales of cruelty and barbaric practices. Those tales may suit some animal campaigners, but they are patently untrue as a general principle.
I think we should applaud the demonstration of partnership between mankind and animals which good trainers can show us.

If we are truly in the twenty-first century, let’s take every step to protect working animals, and then to defend their, and our, place in the performing arts. Personally I believe that, if circuses can prove they are answering the mental and physical needs of their animals, then those animals have as good a home in a circus as anywhere.

What we need are strict controls which will both protect the animals, and help preserve the important cultural tradition of the circus.

Reprinted with kind permissio0n of Chris Barltrop and British Actors Equity Association.

© Chris Barltrop and Equity magazine Winter 2005