An­i­mal-free Cir­cus

China Pictorial (English) - - Front Page -

In years past, spec­ta­tors would see danc­ing dogs, drum­ming bears, tigers jump­ing through flam­ing rings and bow­ing lions at China International Cir­cus Fes­ti­val. How­ever, at the end of 2017, or­ga­niz­ers of the event can­celled all an­i­mal per­for­mances.

An­i­mal shows and the folk artists who pre­sented them date back to a long time ago in China. In 2008, the tra­di­tional cir­cus was listed in the se­cond group of na­tional in­tan­gi­ble her­itage.

But in re­cent years, cir­cus per­for­mances have be­come in­creas­ingly con­tro­ver­sial. Even the Guangzhou Zoo, which is known for its cir­cus an­i­mals, an­nounced an end to an­i­mal per­for­mances, break­ing up with the cir­cus af­ter 24 years of co­op­er­a­tion.

Crit­i­cism of cir­cus per­for­mances is noth­ing new. Ac­cord­ing to in­com­plete statis­tics, 389 cities and 36 coun­tries around the world have banned or re­stricted an­i­mal per­for­mances.

When China International Cir­cus Fes­ti­val re­moved an­i­mal shows, the move was met with wide­spread ac­claim. Now the ques­tion re­mains: How can the con­ven­tional cir­cus in­dus­try sur­vive?

Cir­cus: Fad­ing Golden Age

The golden age for the cir­cus in China stretched through the 1970s and 1980s. Dur­ing those decades, most of the coun­try’s zoos of­fered their own an­i­mal per­for­mances. Chim­panzees and ele­phants liv­ing in the zoos would per­form small tricks like wire walk­ing and jump­ing through rings. In the 1990s, pri­vate ac­ro­bat­ics teams and cir­cus groups played a big part in of­fer­ing an­i­mal per­for­mances and earned prof­its from ticket sales.

In July 2010, the State Forestry Ad­min­is­tra­tion of China is­sued a no­tice pro­hibit­ing di­rect con­tact be­tween wild an­i­mals and the au­di­ence as well as shows in­volv­ing an­i­mal abuse. In Oc­to­ber of the same year, the Min­istry of Hous­ing and Ur­ban-ru­ral De­vel­op­ment be­gan re­quir­ing that zoos and parks across the coun­try stop all an­i­mal shows. In July 2013, the min­istry re­it­er­ated the same re­quire­ment.

Xu Liang, a trainer with a pri­vate cir­cus in Bei­jing, hails from Yongqiao Dis­trict, Suzhou City, An­hui Prov­ince, a place known as the “home of Chi­nese cir­cus.”

“I used to op­er­ate a cir­cus with my two sons,” says Xu. “As poli­cies changed, we lost most of our busi­ness and didn’t have enough money to continue. So I just sold my cir­cus and came to Bei­jing to get a job.”

Xu Liang is not alone. Af­ter the en­act­ment of new poli­cies, many in Xu’s home­town quit the in­dus­try—some went bank­rupt and oth­ers shifted to other trades. The con­struc­tion of a cir­cus sta­dium in Nanjing, on which seven or eight mil­lion yuan had al­ready been spent, was put on hold.

“In 2008 when the cir­cus be­came a na­tional in­tan­gi­ble her­itage, we thought the se­cond ‘golden age’ of the in­dus­try was com­ing,” Xu sighed. “Who could have seen this com­ing?”

The pri­vate cir­cus that em­ployed Xu is also hav­ing a dif­fi­cult time. Be­cause of stricter reg­u­la­tions, per­form­ing any­where re­quires com­pli­cated ap­provals and many pro­ce­dures such as cer­tifi­cates for wild an­i­mal train­ing and per­for­mance as well as trans­porta­tion li­censes spec­i­fy­ing the cities through which it passes and the va­ri­ety and num­ber of an­i­mals. The li­censes need stamps from the ori­gin and des­ti­na­tion’s forestry de­part­ments, which are checked all the way to the des­ti­na­tion.

“We pre­fer to co­op­er­ate with zoos be­cause the an­i­mals don’t travel well,” says Xu.

Zoos: Con­flict­ing Ideas

Xu’s hope for con­tin­ued co­op­er­a­tion with zoos is likely a pipe dream. In 2010 and 2012, when China’s Min­istry of Hous­ing and Ur­ban-ru­ral De­vel­op­ment pre­pared the doc­u­ments to ban an­i­mal per­for­mances, the Chi­nese As­so­ci­a­tion of Zo­o­log­i­cal Gar­dens was in­vited to join dis­cus­sions.

“We weren’t in­ten­tion­ally try­ing to force out the cir­cus,” says Yu Zey­ing, vice

sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the as­so­ci­a­tion. “We just have con­flict­ing ideas about proper treat­ment of an­i­mals.”

“The ear­li­est zoos just caught wild an­i­mals and showed them to ur­ban peo­ple,” Yu con­tin­ues. “They rarely cared about the an­i­mals’ well-be­ing.” But great changes have taken place in the zo­o­log­i­cal park in­dus­try.

“Orig­i­nally, zoos of­ten fo­cused on in­tro­duc­ing the an­i­mals’ char­ac­ter­is­tics and be­hav­iors,” Yu adds. “But to­day, more em­pha­sis is given to the pro­tec­tion of their habi­tats and the re­lated bio­di­ver­sity. Ur­ban zoos have be­come in­sti­tu­tions for an­i­mal pro­tec­tion and re­search. Due to lim­ited space and the need to dis­play the an­i­mals, zoos can’t let them roam free, but we try to put them in a liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment sim­i­lar to the wild.”

NGOS and An­i­mal Wel­fare

Cir­cuses have long been ac­cused of an­i­mal abuse. But Xu and his col­leagues claim in­no­cence. They be­lieve that an­i­mal per­for­mances are re­al­ized through af­fec­tion­ate in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the trainer and an­i­mals, which en­cour­ages an­i­mals to demon­strate their in­nate char­ac­ter­is­tics and abil­i­ties. They be­lieve such per­for­mances are an im­por­tant method for hu­mans to learn about an­i­mals and co­ex­ist with them peace­fully.

But an­i­mal con­ser­va­tion­ists be­lieve an­i­mal shows al­ways vi­o­late an­i­mal wel­fare.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, five “free­doms” out­line five as­pects for the wel­fare of an­i­mals in cap­tiv­ity: free­dom from hunger and thirst, free­dom from dis­com­fort, free­dom from pain, in­jury and dis­ease, free­dom to ex­press nor­mal be­hav­ior and free­dom from fear and dis­tress.

Dif­fer­ent voices from non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions (NGOS) have also had some say. Some be­lieve all an­i­mal shows should be banned, but oth­ers are merely against in­tro­duc­ing wild an­i­mals into cir­cus per­for­mances. Mod­er­ates have no prob­lem with live­stock and poul­try in cir­cuses be­cause they think that do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals have the nat­u­ral abil­ity to co­op­er­ate with hu­mans and are eas­ily tamed. But it is much more dif­fi­cult to do­mes­ti­cate a wild an­i­mal. An­i­mals from farms are bred rather than do­mes­ti­cated. Wild cir­cus an­i­mals such as bears, tigers and ele­phants fre­quently cause hu­man in­juries in places around the world, ev­i­denc­ing their in­nate wild­ness.

It is far more dif­fi­cult to train wild an­i­mals be­cause they have lit­tle in­ter­est in obey­ing hu­mans. The “pro­grams” they un­dergo of­ten be­tray their na­ture and de­mand in­ten­sive train­ing. Af­ter longterm train­ing, such wild an­i­mals be­have un­nat­u­rally. For ex­am­ple, a chim­panzee can be trained to grin, which is nat­u­rally a sign of fear. So train­ing im­pacts the chim­panzee’s ac­qui­si­tion of nor­mal so­cial skills, which will cause it to be re­jected by oth­ers even if it is sent back to a pop­u­la­tion in cap­tiv­ity.

Hu Chun­mei, head of the Per­form­ing An­i­mals Res­cue Pro­gram, says an­i­mal shows don’t even help the au­di­ence learn more about an­i­mals, be­cause such an­i­mals are not be­hav­ing nat­u­rally any­way. “Ac­tu­ally,

nowa­days the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of on­line videos presents a much bet­ter way to un­der­stand, pro­tect and learn about an­i­mals.” A Dif­fer­ent Path for Cir­cuses

It is an in­dis­putable fact that the cir­cus in­dus­try is de­clin­ing.

The trade is fac­ing greater pres­sure and protest from an­i­mal pro­tec­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions as well as more com­pli­cated reg­u­la­tions and stricter ap­proval pro­ce­dures. And it is los­ing cus­tomers be­cause the pub­lic is find­ing a wider ar­ray of choices for en­ter­tain­ment. Ad­di­tion­ally, im­prov­ing an­i­mal wel­fare re­quires bet­ter liv­ing con­di­tions, which in­creases op­er­at­ing costs sig­nif­i­cantly.

Pre­vi­ously, the cir­cus an­i­mals were walk­ing a tightrope and to­day it is the cir­cus in­dus­try it­self.

The Rin­gling Brothers-bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus and the Big Ap­ple Cir­cus in the United States and the Cirque du Soleil in Canada were the three most fa­mous cir­cuses in the world. In Novem­ber 2016, the 39-year-old Big Ap­ple Cir­cus de­clared bankruptcy. On May 21, 2017, the 146-year-old Rin­gling Brothers-bar­num & Bai­ley Cir­cus fol­lowed suit.

But, the Cirque du Soleil has sur­vived and thrived. In De­cem­ber 2017 when the cir­cus toured at Bei­jing’s Chaoyang Park, tick­ets sold out light­ning fast. Tout­ing “with­out an­i­mals, we can still stun the world,” the cir­cus em­ploys high-tech stage art de­sign and world­class acro­bats to win pop­u­lar­ity around the world. This group has cer­tainly trail­blazed a new road for the cir­cus, and it is com­pletely an­i­mal-free.

The 4th China International Cir­cus Fes­ti­val and the Guangzhou Zoo re­moved an­i­mal per­for­mances, which hope­fully rep­re­sents a new start rather than a de­cline for the cir­cus in­dus­try.

Au­gust 12, 2017: Vol­un­teers from Xishuang­banna Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Wild Ele­phant Val­ley in Yun­nan Prov­ince pose for a pic­ture dur­ing a cam­paign to pro­tect ele­phants. VCG

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