Animal Protection > Worldwide Actions > New Zealand

Opinion Piece on Circuses

"A small, vocal, well-funded minority wants to ban elephants and other exotic animals from circuses in this country. Their agenda, however, goes well beyond that." (Tony Ratcliffe, New Zealand Herald, 2004).

New Zealand has two remaining circuses which choose to use performing animals as a part of their entertainment act. These are the Whirling Brothers Circus from the Waikato region and the Ridgeway Circus from Auckland.

The Whirling Brothers Circus has performing ponies, dogs, lions, monkeys and a 25 year-old, female African elephant called Jumbo.

The Ridgeway Circus has performing ponies, dogs and lamas.

Tony Ratcliffe, the owner-operator of the Whirling Bros Circus states: "…our animals are members of the family, loved and cared for just like family pets." (New Zealand Herald, 2004). He also comments that "animals, particularly elephants, are the No 1 attraction at circuses." (cited in New Zealand Herald).

His comments are both insightful and contradictory.

When was the last time you caged your family pet in a small, barren enclosure, barely big enough to turn around in, and left it there for up to 22 hours per day, often standing in it’s own excrement?

When was the last time you chained the family dog to a stake by it's back leg and confined it by use of an electrical wire to a small, bleak space devoid of any physical or mental stimulation?

When was the last time your beloved family pet displayed disturbing behaviours such as repetitive swaying, compulsive weaving and bobbing, continual pacing, excessive aggression or lifeless apathy?

Tony Ratcliffe, Jumbo’s trainer-handler, refers to the research of ‘animal behaviour specialist’ Dr Ted Friend, regarding some of the above behaviours. This research concludes that "…elephants began rocking and weaving (a stereotypical behaviour) before performing, and before being fed and watered. So, he said, it made you wonder if maybe performances weren't terrible, and maybe elephants thought of them in the same context they thought of food and water, something they liked to do." (Herald).

So it seems the conclusion is that animals display stereotypical behaviours, including repetitive rocking and weaving, before indulging in ‘things they like’ such as eating, drinking and standing on their hind legs on a little coloured box in the middle of the circus ring, being prodded by their ‘trainer-handler’ and reveling in the inane attentions of an imbecilic audience?

Ratcliffe goes on to state that ‘…circus animals learn through a process of reward and repetition. Performances are designed to display an animal's natural abilities or movements on cue." (Herald). His wording regarding this process of reward and repetition conveniently veils the crucial use of punishment when training an animal to perform acts which are completely unnatural to it and are far from ‘…designed to display an animal’s natural abilities or movements…" (Herald). Punishment may involve mental and physical intimidation through beatings with sticks or whips and food and water deprivation. Such tactics continue until the animal has been made completely subservient to it’s trainer and has mastered it’s ‘act’ to an adequate degree.

Ratcliffe’s most ludicrous assertion is that "…circuses also play an important role in educating people about the needs and challenges of many endangered species…" (Herald). On second thought, maybe he’s finally got something right! It must surely occur to any thinking person that the ‘needs and challenges’ of animals, especially exotic and endangered species, are not met by circuses by any means! Unless the ‘needs and challenges’ of animals include confinement, isolation, deprivation, humiliation, subjection and suppression.

Personally, I find Ratcliffe’s statement that "…animals, particularly elephants, are the No 1 attraction at circuses…" (Herald), extremely insightful when pondering his truly ludicrous pronouncements regarding the use of animals in circuses!