Every summer, right up to 2011, a traditional travelling circus would make a two-month tour of southern and central Scotland. Bobby Roberts’ Super Circus always brought with it their aged, arthritic elephant Anne, taken from the wild in Sri Lanka and used for entertainment for over half a century. By 2011, she had no elephant companions and was so worn out that her only remaining trick was to stand in the ring to have her photograph taken with audience members (£5 a time) and eat a few pieces of candy floss.
This dismal image encapsulates OneKind’s welcome and support for the Bill to ban the use of wild animals which will be debated in the Scottish Parliament next Thursday. We want to see Scotland ban wild animal circuses just as Estonia has done, this week, while similar legislation makes steady progress in Italy. We want Scotland to show its modern animal welfare credentials like these and other states around the world that have already banned such outmoded entertainments. Potentially, we could see a ban in place by Christmas.
MSPs will be debating the General Principles of the Bill and the report of the lead Committee -the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee (ECCLR) .
Crucially, the ECCLR has supported the General Principles, paving the way for it to proceed to detailed consideration and amendments at Stage 2.
However, the ECCLR wants to see a stronger Bill and has made 20 recommendations for consideration by the Scottish Government. These include:
· Ensuring there are no gaps in legislation covering performance, display or exhibition of animals
· Confirming the Scottish Government’s intentions regarding static circuses
· Clarifying a number of definitions within the Bill, such as “circus” and “domesticated” and responsible persons
· Considering inclusion of a list of wild animals covered by the legislation (a OneKind recommendation)
· Strengthening local authority enforcement obligations and powers, including improvement notices and fixed penalty fines
· Ensuring that guidance to the legislation is produced by the implementation date
OneKind also wants the strongest, clearest Bill possible and we will support and promote detailed amendments in due course. But at this point, we think it is right to think about Anne and other sentient wild animals exploited in travelling circuses, and remember just what the Bill is trying to do.
The ECCLR was fairly exercised about the “ethical” basis for the Bill, as opposed to a measure on purely animal welfare grounds. Among other things, MSPs asked why the Scottish Government was now proposing to review other forms of animal performance, for welfare reasons, but had not invoked welfare in this Bill. Did the Scottish Government think that circus welfare was better than that of other performing animals?
Clearly, it is not. So we need to understand why the Bill takes the approach that it does. OneKind cannot speak on behalf of the Scottish Government, but our take on it is this:
The use of wild animals in entertainments such as travelling circuses is unquestionably an ethical issue. The Scottish public has repeatedly rejected the idea that wild animals can be made to perform unnatural tricks, manoeuvres and postures so that human audiences can gaze/admire/laugh at them, just because we think it is wrong. If we do not achieve a ban on wild animals in travelling circuses, when the opportunity presents itself, that is what we will be condoning. In Scotland. In the 21st century.
There is a bit of history behind the Bill’s approach. Following the new animal welfare legislation in both Scotland and England in 2006, a Circus Working Group was convened by DEFRA under the chairmanship of Mike Radford, a Reader in Law at Aberdeen University . The Group was given a tight remit which covered housing and transportation but precluded consideration of other matters such as training methods. Given the paucity of circus-based research, it appeared there was no scientific evidence base on which animal welfare legislation could be founded. The Chairman concluded in his report:
“[…] our present state of knowledge about the welfare of non-domesticated animals used in circuses is such that we cannot look to scientific evidence for a steer in the development of policy; it is, ultimately, an entirely political decision.”
That did not mean that public and animal welfare organisations’ concerns about circuses went away: simply that a different approach was needed. There was precedent for an ethical measure affecting animal welfare in the legislation to ban fur farms both north and south of the Border. In 2014, the Scottish Government issued a thoughtful consultation covering the ethical issues surrounding wild animal use in circuses, and received 2,034 responses – of which 98 per cent agreed that the use of wild animals for performances in travelling circuses should be banned in Scotland.
In July 2016, a comprehensive new study on welfare commissioned by the Welsh Government, was published and greatly strengthened the animal welfare case for a ban. The authors concluded:
“The available scientific evidence indicates that captive wild animals in circuses and other travelling animal shows do not achieve their optimal welfare requirements, as set out under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 , and the evidence would therefore support a ban on using wild animals in travelling circuses and mobile zoos on animal welfare grounds.”
For OneKind, the focus on the ethics of animal use in circuses has never conflicted with the animal welfare case. The two do not exist in parallel universes. Self-evidently, our ethical objection to seeing an elephant balancing on a beach ball is partly based on our concern for the animal’s welfare. It is unethical, because the elephant does not want to do it, would not normally do it, has to be made to do it by humans, and is simply doing it to entertain other humans. This is, we believe, a basic question of right and wrong.
The Stage 1 debate on the Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Bill is expected to take place next Thursday, 5 October. If you live in Scotland please contact your MSPs and ask them to support the Bill. We want to see it strengthened at Stage 2 and to ensure that it is completely free of loopholes, left open for lions to jump through. On all fronts, surely that has had its day.