First-timer in the big top

2011-06-30 00:00

AS British MPs agreed to a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses amid growing concerns for their welfare, The Witness carried a report that cricketer Wayne Parnell had stripped off for a photo shoot in support of the cause for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta). Brian Boswell’s circus was cited in the press release by Peta and after we called Boswell for comment, he arrived at The Witness offices last week.

“Have you ever been to a circus?” he asked fairly gruffly.

“Never,” I replied, smugly standing firmly on my moral high ground. “I will not support them.”

“Not even as a child?”

“Nope. My mother wouldn’t let us go. She disagrees with animals being used in circuses too.”

“Then if you’ve never been, how can you write about circus animals?”

Hmmm. He was right. I had to go.

As I mulled this over, the song Nellie the Elephant poignantly went through my head. I even felt like backing out. This was a moral point for me, but in the name of research, armed with the complimentary tickets Boswell bestowed on us, ace photographer Ian Carbutt and I headed to the fields opposite the Showgrounds where Brian Bowell’s Circus has parked its clutter of caravans and pitched its big top.

Boswell allowed us into the inner circle and showed us around.

Travelling southern Africa, the circus is made up of a mix of cultures and at present a host of Mongolians are part of the act. We did not interview them because they understand no English, we were told.

Circus life really is as it’s portrayed in books and film. Caravans are parked haphazardly. Washing flaps on makeshift lines, basins on fold-up tables are stacked high with washed dishes and a plethora of plastic chairs form crooked arcs of sociable circles.

The workers live one or two to a caravan, and Boswell and his wife Jane stay on site too. “We bring our own water for drinking. Jane does not like hose-pipe water for her tea.”

It’s a sociable life with braais in the evenings and a family atmosphere.

“Because there is so much to be done, everyone multitasks. Most of the men and some of the women have heavy-duty drivers’ licences to drive the trucks.”

We chat to David Marais (32) who forms part of the highwire act, and is also the elephant trainer. He seems not to have lost his infatuation with the big top, which developed as a schoolboy. Marais, smiling constantly, says each day still brings a new thrill. He’s been with Boswell for 17 years and joined the circus while he was in matric. While in his hometown of Port Elizabeth, he was offered a job putting up posters for the circus. That was the beginning of his career which has trapezed to a point where he is now in charge of the elephants, among other weighty responsibilities. Marais has even found love in the circus. His previous partner tended the chimps, which are no longer part of the act, and his current partner was a spectator. She’s joining up soon.

Marais’s entire family has followed in his footsteps. His five other siblings have all been involved in circus work here and overseas.

While he admitted that artistic temperaments flare occasionally, in general everyone gets along. “They look after us. This is a proper career.” Marais said circuses overseas that were staffed with gypseys and “Pikeys” were totally different. “This is like a camping holiday. But there they steal your TV and cattle. You can’t make friends with them.”

He says he has a child who is the envy of his classmates when he visits his dad from time to time. He also does film work with the animals.

Marais relates how while working with Leonardo di Caprio, he got his own back on the star’s burly bodyguards who would not let him within 100 metres of Di Caprio during the filming of Blood Diamonds. “They were not very nice. Not very sociable. Later, they wanted to come close to the elephants, and I told them, ‘Not within 100 metres’,” he chuckles.

When we meet Carlo the Clown (aka 55-year-old Stanley Bower), his main concern is that his adored Jack Russell dogs stay well away from the tigers which are close to where we sit in the winter sunshine. “They are curious but I have to make sure they are safe at all time,” he says. He has been a clown for 30 years. “You can put on makeup and a costume, but that will just make you look stupid. You have to get into character. I am shy and pretty much a loner until I put on the costume and then I get my confidence and become the character.”

Dressed in a sparkly, flamboyant costume, Bower says he looks forward to the period after the show when people approach him and say they love what they have seen. He was once a successful trapeze artist until a bad fall in which two vertebrae were compressed plunged his career into doubt. He admits he was showing off when the accident occurred, and had swung too far out, as there were people in the audience he particularly wanted to impress.

“You have to have an open mind about breaking your neck in this business. It’s a tough life. It’s not for everyone. I could never see myself in a building for eight hours a day. That would kill me.”

SO HOW WAS THE SHOW?

<p id="U30597247856PUD" style="font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;text-align:left;text-align-last:left;">The star of the show was undoubtably the exotic Miss Tsetseg, whose graceful act in a cube high above the ground is breathtakingly daring. She is also part of the Mongolian troupe whose juggling acts, tightrope walking and other feats are well worth seeing. The clowns elicited many hoots of laughter and were a hit with the diverse crowd.</p><p id="U30597247856sEE" style="font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;text-align:left;text-align-last:left;">The animals, I felt, were less entertaining, and while the size of the elephants up close is astounding, their tricks were — perhaps mercifully — nothing incredible. The same goes for the tigers, who just seemed pretty bleak most of the time they were in the ring, and came across as grumpy and obstinate. They were not having fun. I did not like the way their trainer interacted with them, in what I perceived as a fairly aggressive way. The ponies seemed fine and the dogs were a treat to see. They really have fun out there. </p><p id="U30597247856WgH" style="font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;text-align:left;text-align-last:left;">It has to be said, the animals all appeared in very good condition physically. They are clearly well fed and the coats of the animals that have them are glossy and gleaming. </p><p/>

THE ANIMALS

<p id="U30597247856HBH" style="text-align:left;text-align-last:left;font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-stretch:93%;">THE magnificent Bengal tigers were bred in captivity. There are seven altogether. </p><p id="U30597247856Z0" style="text-align:left;text-align-last:left;font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-stretch:93%;">“We know the animals. They are not wild or straight out of the jungle. They are a lot more relaxed,” says Boswell. </p><p id="U30597247856NeD" style="text-align:left;text-align-last:left;font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-stretch:93%;">To be able to operate as trainers, Boswell says they have to be in possession of a valid, renewable licence. “We get them through a magistrate or the chief of police.”</p><p id="U30597247856AvG" style="text-align:left;text-align-last:left;font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-stretch:93%;">How does one learn to be a tiger trainer? “You can’t read a book or go on a course. Every animal is different. We watch them and if they jump, we extend it. If they roll over, we use that. There is nothing unnatural or any impossible trick that we make them do. We aren’t harming them. We love them and look after them very well.”</p><p id="U30597247856IsC" style="text-align:left;text-align-last:left;font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-stretch:93%;">The animals are not cheap to maintain. Boswell said the tigers alone eat R1 500 worth of meat daily. The elephants munch their way through cubes costing R150 per day.</p><p id="U30597247856qaD" style="text-align:left;text-align-last:left;font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-stretch:93%;">Boswell insists that they mostly use a reward system to train the animals, which involves patience and kindness. “We don’t particularly use negative reinforcement.” He points out that they are members of the European Circus Association and the World Circus Federation.</p><p id="U30597247856hjF" style="text-align:left;text-align-last:left;font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-stretch:93%;">With pressure mounting on circuses to ditch the animal acts and rely on humans for their entertainment, why does Boswell still feel that animals are an integral part of the show? He says simply that it’s due to public demand. </p><p id="U30597247856o0F" style="text-align:left;text-align-last:left;font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-stretch:93%;">Boswell said circuses are still popular. “We have about 800 to 1 000 people in the tent at a time. It’s the kind of show where you can take your granddaughter and your grandmother, and there will be nothing to censor. Parents take their kids to a circus to see what they saw as a child. When the children become teenagers they don’t come, but as soon as they have children of their own, they are back, showing their children the circus.” </p><p id="U30597247856TgE" style="text-align:left;text-align-last:left;font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-stretch:93%;">He said the Euoropean Union has passed a resolution to promote traditional circuses with animals.</p><p id="U30597247856E8E" style="text-align:left;text-align-last:left;font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;font-stretch:93%;">Outside the tent at interval, I approached a group of mums who had brought their children to the show. Lauren Anastasis said that while she is aware of opposition to circuses using animals, it presented her with an opportunity to show her children the animals. “They may never see them up close like this anywhere else.” </p>

ELEPHANT AURAS

<p id="U30597247856W0H" style="font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;text-align:left;text-align-last:left;">BRIAN Boswell stressed that they take good care of their elephants, Thembi and Wankie, both aged around 30.</p><p id="U30597247856nn" style="font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;text-align:left;text-align-last:left;">He said that when they were in Cape Town recently, a woman approached him and said she could see the elephants’ auras, “and they were the happiest she had ever seen in her life”. </p><p id="U305972478563YH" style="font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;text-align:left;text-align-last:left;">Boswell said on a different occasion another woman approached him, saying she too could also see the elephants’ auras. “She was old and loves animals, a serious vegetarian type.” This woman said she saw blue auras around the elephants. “That means they are happy,” said Boswell. </p><p id="U30597247856NtE" style="font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;text-align:left;text-align-last:left;">He pets their trunks as we chat near the elephants’ area, cordoned off with an electrified cable. “It’s no use travelling with them if they aren’t happy.”</p><p id="U30597247856kbD" style="font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;text-align:left;text-align-last:left;">He said these are the same elephants reported on in the Peta press release. “There’s not a mark on them.” And he is right. There are no suppurating sores from bullhooks or chain marks on their legs. He said the elephants came from 10 he saved from Central Africa as they were about to be culled. Four are on a farm, two are at Knysna and two at the zoo.</p><p id="U30597247856GwH" style="font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;text-align:left;text-align-last:left;">Trainer David Marais said they give the mammoth creatures space and shade. “If there is rain or thunder they get into the truck themselves.” He says the elephants do get to behave like elephants and tear down trees and wander around back at their base at the Lion Park and while on tour around the country. “They are happy. I drive the elephant truck and make sure no one on the road touches them. Everyone wants to see them. They are the main attraction. In the wild, elephants will kick a log, so we get them to kick a ball for a food reward.” </p><p id="U30597247856efF" style="font-family:'Akzidenz Grotesk BE Bold';font-weight:normal;font-style:normal;text-align:left;text-align-last:left;">Oh. I forgot to tell Boswell, but he may have guessed. I’m also a “serious vegetarian type”. I have a book on how to read auras, but as much as I squinted no elephant auras presented themselves. Must be the brand of soya I’m eating.</p>

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