Whip-wielding, top-hat wearing lion tamers may seem anachronistic, yet the exploitation of wild animals in circuses continues today. A French circus owner was recently attacked by one of his lions, prompting the surrender of four cats to the authorities. Angela, Bellone, Louga and Saïda will be re-housed at Born Free’s sanctuary at Shamwari Private Game Reserve in South Africa.
Dr Chris Draper, head of animal welfare and captivity at Born Free has seen the conditions of European circus’ first hand. ‘Conditions are woefully inadequate. Animals are made to perform once or twice a day. They’re living cheek by jowl, often with predator and prey side-by-side.’
Thirty-one countries worldwide and 18 EU countries have banned the use of wild animals in circuses; 24 EU countries restrict the use of animals in one form or another. However, in the absence of EU-wide legislation, circuses have exploited regional and national differences in enforcement. Several EU countries have only restrictions on the use of wild animals in place, not bans. Some, including France, Germany, and Lithuania, are yet to adopt any restrictions. In Spain, murky legislative waters are enforced at the municipality or regional level – more Spanish municipalities are banning wild animals in circuses, but a nationwide ban is yet to come into effect.
As travelling performances, circuses can simply move to regions where wild animals are still permitted to perform. EU member states which have banned the use of wild animals are obliged to allow travelling circuses to move through their territory. Ilaria Di Silvestre, programme leader for wildlife at Eurogroup for Animals, thinks that the absence of an EU-wide ban exacerbates poor conditions: ‘They are spending even longer on the road, crossing Europe to reach areas where they’re still allowed to perform.’
According to a YouGov 2018 opinion poll conducted for the NGO Animal Advocacy and Protection, 65 per cent of Europeans condemn the use of wild animals in circuses. ‘Polls have shown that it’s not really a problem of public support, it’s getting the politicians to understand that [wild animals in circuses] should be a priority. EU-level politicians and the European Commission say that it’s the responsibility of member states to enforce,’ says Di Silvestre.
Organisations such as Born Free, Eurogroup for Animals and InfoCircos are promulgating the need for EU-wide regulation to address the problem. ‘In my experience, the only effective stance is a blanket ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. Any sort of halfway house is open to abuse,’ says Draper. With an estimated 500 to 1,500 wild animals in French circuses alone, many experts have called for an interim, transition period to precede a blanket ban in the EU, in which sanctuaries for wildlife can be bolstered to habilitate the influx of newly-protected animals. ‘Governments don’t fully know what animals are out there. We’d need to identify the animals currently in circuses, prevent new ones coming in, both from breeding or trade, and ensure each animal is identifiable through micro-chipping: it’s got to be strategic, and it’s got to be entirely humane,’ adds Draper.
Circuses are supposed to comply with EU Council Regulation 338/97, protecting endangered species of wild fauna and flora by restricting their trade. However, Draper is sceptical that circuses can remain financially viable through performances alone. ‘Lions and tigers will continue to breed even in the worst facilities, so there’s a never-ending supply of cubs. I’m curious about how circuses are staying afloat – there is a strong suspicion that some are breeding and selling cubs into the exotic pet trade to supplement their income.’ The inclusion of wild animals in legal circuses may therefore be perpetuating the commodification of dangerous and endangered species.
Di Silvestre is hopeful that the tides are turning. The French government is currently reviewing its legislation on wild animals in circuses, Italy is drafting new legislation, and a petition calling for an EU-wide ban, led by InfoCircos, has drawn just under one million signatures. However, it is clear that until an EU-wide ban is enforced, circus owners will continue to exploit grey areas in legislation, and prolong the exploitation of wild animals.