Are circuses all that bad?

2013-06-22 00:00

FOR some city children the circus may be the only place they get to see a camel or a tiger or a large lumbering elephant and those who are against the use of exotic animals in circus acts should consider this before joining the clamour to have these acts banned.

The McLaren circus pulled in to the Woodburn stadium for the week and a small group of animal protesters made a fuss about the use of animals in the circus acts. But David McLaren, the circus owner, says he has no problem showing animal rights people around his operation.

He gave Weekend Witness a tour of the animal cages and invited us to see how the tigers were put through their paces. Tall brawny animal trainer Casey Cainan says he has a few scars where he has been scratched by the lions and tigers he has trained, but he says if he believes if he was really hurting the animals, he would not be alive to tell the tale.

He uses a combination of positive reinforcement and punishment to train the four lions and four tigers that belong to the circus. They are rewarded with chunks of meat when they do their tricks and when they deliberately disobey a command, they are given a flick with a horse whip that makes a loud crack.

He has been training the tigers for one-and-a-half years and they can do some basic tricks but he says their acts are also based on what they would usually do in the wild. “Tigers can easily stand on their hind legs and will happily do this, but a lion will not as it is not in their natural behaviour, so when we devise a routine we consider what comes naturally to each species.”

David McLaren started his circus eight years ago in Cape Town. It has gradually expanded and now has international acts and animals. He says the current show has grown due to the support of the public who come to see the animals do their acts.

“Our animals are in good condition and we get a vet to see them once a month to make sure they are in good health. The animals are vaccinated and de-wormed regularly.”

McLaren says the big cats were bought from breeders in South Africa and he has two white lions and one white tiger that are very eye-catching and are crowd pullers. The animals are exercised in the ring daily and have a big exercise pen outside. The animals can go into their trailers and sleep in the shade.

Cainan, who was raised in the circus and learnt to train animals, says one has to understand that the lions and tigers in the circus are as domesticated as dogs and they have never experienced their wild habitat.

“These animals know this life and it’s all they know. To put them in the wild would be cruel. To have some rich women in their leather boots waving placards is ironic. Their time would be better spent helping rural donkeys that are being wired to trees in the sun for hours.”

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