With the Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses Bill about to be passed by Holyrood, Libby Anderson, OneKind’s Policy Advisor, reflects on a decade of campaigning to end the use of wild animals in circuses.
Having taken a leading role in campaigning for a ban on wild animal circuses in Scotland, I am delighted that today the Scottish Parliament will finally introduce a ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses on ethical grounds.
It has been a long haul to get to this stage and it made me reflect on some of the colourful events that got us here. When I started at Advocates for Animals in 2006, I soon learned that summer meant circuses – and for us, a regular round of appeals to councils not to grant public entertainment licences to animal circuses. I have sat in licensing committees where councillors thought it was “nice for the kiddies” to have their picture taken beside an aging, arthritic elephant who had spent decades on the road in the name of entertainment. More often, I sat outside (some council committees being rather exclusive) in uncomfortable silence next to the elephant’s owners, circus proprietors Bobby and Moira Roberts.
In 2010, our fieldworkers trailed that particular circus around central and southern Scotland and identified numerous breaches of council licensing or land use conditions. But by the time our complaints were addressed by officials, it was usually time for the circus to move on, and the problems were side-lined. Until the next year…
Nonetheless, we established good working relationships with officials and councillors in some of those councils that we annually pestered. While they believed that refusing entertainment licences was beyond their legal powers, a growing number agreed that they would no longer let council land to any animal circuses – East Ayrshire and North Ayrshire were two that we supported to introduce these policies in 2011 and 2012. This meant that over half of Scotland’s councils effectively banned circuses with wild animals or, in some cases, any animals from their parks and playing fields.
But there are plenty of private venues that accept animal circuses, so at the same time we lobbied the Scottish Government to use its powers to ban them. The government view at the time was that it could not do this as there was no “scientific evidence” of welfare problems.
In 2011, we backed up our case with a petition to the Scottish Parliament, which received good support from the Public Petitions Committee. And one sunny June afternoon that same year, we organised a colourful human circus outside the Parliament, to publicise a Member’s Debate on a Motion by Elaine Murray MSP
The Scottish Government consultation in 2014 focussed on those ethical issues and elicited 98% support from respondents in favour of a ban. But there was still no legislation in view.
In late 2014, a big cat circus trainer moved to Scotland with two lions and three tigers. He kept the animals near Fraserburgh from October 2014 to June 2015, after which he moved the cats back to England to perform there. The presence of the cats in Scotland led to significant public outcry and must have helped focus the authorities’ minds.
The long delay in bringing legislation has been frustrating. But there have been personal positives. It has been rewarding to work with colleagues in Born Free Foundation and the Captive Animals’ Protection Society, and doughty campaigners such as Maureen Rankin – a one-woman powerhouse, fighting to end this pointless, inhumane use of animals. I think it was Maureen who inspired me to find my inner demonstrator. Not long after meeting her I found myself, along with the OneKind team, being escorted from the Royal Highland Showground after boldly offering leaflets to a few circus-goers attending Zippos Circus.
Now we finally have a ban that will be imminently passed by the Scottish Parliament. It is an imperfect ban. I would have preferred to see all animals banned rather than just wild animals, for example. And I would have liked to see other wild animals made to perform for entertainment addressed too, like the ever-growing practices of using reindeer for Christmas entertainment and displaying birds of prey in shopping centres. But we at least have a commitment to look at these practices next year, and there is no doubt that Scotland taking the lead on this issue in the UK is a welcome and bold move.