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