They don’t belong in circuses

2013-12-24 00:00

SEEING a pride of lions bring down a wildebeest in the wild, tear it apart and devour their hard-earned meal is an extremely emotional experience.

It brings home the harsh and bloody reality of nature in our African wilderness. Nature’s law is uncompromising and clear — only the strongest and fittest survive.

Carnivores are born with the instincts, skills and physical attributes they need to kill their prey in order that they may live and carry out their role in the “circle of life” referred to in the popular film The Lion King .

Their powerful bodies, claws and teeth are designed for that specific purpose.

They are not pussy cats.

Despite the brutality of the kill and the emotion I felt witnessing such a spectacle with my family in the Kruger National Park two years ago, I know for sure that this is how my children ought to experience life and how they ought to become educated about lions.

That is, as nature intended them to be, which is not in a circus jumping through hoops on command to the sounds of a cracking whip, purely for commercial gain.

Today, with television sets present in almost every home — even in those of “poor” people — there is no reason for any South African to experience our wildlife in a circus, behaving in a manner that is completely alien to their nature.

That can’t be considered educational, even though circuses like to project that image.

When the McLaren’s Circus came to Pietermaritzburg in June, a band of citizens held a demonstration voicing their disapproval of animals being imprisoned in cages for life, for no purpose other than entertainment.

Their views have been echoed across the world by millions of people, and have prompted a number of countries to ban the parade of wild animals and other live animal acts in zoos and circuses. They include the United Kingdom, China, Greece, Paraguay, Bolivia, the Netherlands, Belgium and Colombia.

McLaren’s circus management and an animal trainer insisted during an interview with The Witness that their circus animals, which included lions, tigers, camels, horses and dogs, were well fed, sheltered and cared for both in sickness and in health. That may well be. But what of their psychological health?

How trying must it be for these powerful creatures to have their freedom curtailed?

To be restricted in cages, to have inadequate exercise, trotting around and around and around a tiny arena situated in the midst of a busy urban area?

To have to perform tricks on command two or three times daily, before being carted off on the next long road trip to start the monotonous cycle all over again in another town or city.

Cruelty exists in different forms. Even wild animals that are born and raised in captivity do not lose their wild instincts.

People who own domestic cats will relate to this. Nearly all pet cats will instinctively hunt small mammals, reptiles and birds, no matter how well fed they are.

How much greater then are the instincts of lions that are built for the kill and have complex family structures in the wild?

This is quite apart from the many allegations of inhumane training methods, used by some circus trainers, that have appeared in the media for decades.

The animal trainer for McLaren’s Circus, Casey Cainan, told a Witness journalist that his methods of training lions and tigers are not cruel. He described them as a combination of “positive reinforcement and punishment”.

They are rewarded with chunks of meat when they do tricks and when they deliberately disobey a command they are “given a flick with a horse whip that makes a loud crack”.

A television clip aired on the programme Carte Blanche in April showed video clips of circus handlers allegedly abusing elephants from another KZN circus by hitting them in the face with sticks or pieces of metal. The circus owner was reported in the media to have said that when a member of the public brought the abuse of an elephant to the attention of the circus, the man was immediately dismissed. He said it was an isolated incident. Is that any justification?

Elephants too have complex social structures and are highly intelligent.

A Wikipedia web page containing facts on elephants describes them as “incredibly intelligent, a fact that continues to astound researchers as they discover more and more about these animals”.

It states that elephants can communicate with one another, using a variety of techniques, over many kilometres of dense bush. “Their insight into the family structure, tragedy and joy is remarkable, and they are frequently found celebrating the birth of a new one or mourning the death of a loved one in a way never before seen in animals”.

It is time that South Africans came to know these facts and gain myriad other insights into the lives of our wildlife.

Wild animals don’t belong in circuses.

Let us enjoy them and learn about them in their natural habitat — in our many parks and game reserves, which should be preserved and guarded with every resource at our disposal, lest we leave it too late.

• Ingrid Oellermann is the court reporter at The Witness

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