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Is it time for circus animals to take their final bow?

Thomas Chipperfield, who works with animals for touring show An Evening With Lions and Tigers. Thomas Chipperfield, who works with animals for touring show An Evening With Lions and Tigers.
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In 2012, circus grandee Gerry Cottle made headlines when he announced his support for a ban on animals in the big top. He explained: “The animal issue has given circuses a bad name. I believe a ban will improve the image of circuses in Britain.”

Cottle was speaking in the wake of the Anne the Elephant scandal, when undercover footage of a retired circus animal being beaten put the link between cruelty and the big top back on the front pages. But although such stories are rare, he isn’t the only insider who feels perceptions of the industry are still coloured by memories of performing sea lions and bears on bicycles – even though it’s decades since those particular animals appeared in a British ring.

When the Edinburgh Festival Fringe launched its new Circus Hub in 2015, organiser Charlie Wood told the Guardian: “We’ve tried to get away from the old understanding of what circus is – nasty big tops and animals.”

Of the 30 circuses in Britain today, about half a dozen, including Zippos and Giffords, feature domestic animals such as horses and dogs. Just two – Peter Jolly’s Circus and Circus Mondao – use non-native creatures such as camels and snakes and only one show, An Evening With Lions and Tigers, has big cats.

Yet the few animal shows that survive draw a disproportionate amount of attention from animal rights groups and the media. When Mondao and Jolly’s began this year’s touring season, they were met with local news headlines including ‘RSPCA urge people not to visit a circus which uses animals in performances’ and ‘Ludlow circus visit raises fresh controversy’.

Most commercial operators have replaced elephants with other attractions, be it the rock’n’roll razzmatazz of the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome or the thrill stunts of Planet Circus.

So, as the industry prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary next year, is it time for the animals to take their final bow and let the business move on without the baggage?

The backlash against circus animals took hold in the 1980s, when animal rights activists routinely picketed shows and many local authorities banned performing animals from council-owned showgrounds.

The human-skills-based ‘new circus’ movement emerged at the same time, with many of the performers coming from the same ranks of ideological young people who led the campaign against circus animals.

According to Tom Rack, co-founder of new circus pioneers NoFit State Circus: “It was a time of public protests against vivisection and the testing of cosmetics on animals – and circus animals were part of that protest movement.”

“It’s bad enough seeing lions, tigers and elephants in a zoo,” Rack continues, “but travelling in trucks, living in cages and being laughed and jeered at by loads of children was something that we as young people were very much against.”

During the 1990s, the majority of traditional circuses stopped using animals as a practical response to council bans.

Cottle’s former business partner Brian Austen says: “Circuses were being forced on to farmer’s fields. Where you want to be with a circus is in the city centres, as we proved with the Moscow State Circus when we went back to the proper grounds without animals and did phenomenal business.”

The only ‘animals’ at Circus Wonderland are Ernie the Elephant and Bertie the Bear – people in furry costumes.

“As much as we’d like to have animals it was never in our plans because of the difficulties involved,” says Paul Carpenter, who co-founded Wonderland six years ago. “For our first season, we were offered an aerial act that also happened to do a parrot act. We thought that would be novel, but when I called all the councils where we had sites already booked, more than half said we couldn’t bring parrots.”

Having previously worked on shows with animals, Carpenter says another consideration was vandalism by animal rights activists: “You’re constantly living on your nerves. Every sound in the night makes you wonder: ‘Is someone out there?’ ”

In some ways, circus is harder to sell without animals, Carpenter adds.

“In the old days you could put an elephant or a lion on the poster and it looked exciting. Now, the problem is what do you put on a poster that will capture the imagination of the public?

“Sometimes we get people saying: ‘Do you have animals? No? Good, because I wouldn’t come if you did.’ But others say: ‘It’s a shame you don’t have them.’ Maybe if someone was brave enough to have all the big animal acts it would be popular, because you do get a lot of people saying they want to see that.”

Many people draw a distinction between the acceptability of domestic and wild animals.

“I personally enjoy a good equestrian act,” says Rack, “but I don’t believe a tiger wants that relationship with a human.”

Lion tamer Thomas Chipperfield, by contrast, says all animals are capable of an affectionate relationship with people.

“My father had a python that would climb up him for no other reason than to be close to him,” he says.

Despite regular calls for a national ban on wild animals in the big top, Conservative MP Christopher Chope told the Commons last year that regulations introduced in 2012 have rendered a ban unnecessary.

“Nobody has criticised the welfare of the animals subject to that licensing regime,” said Chope. “I think we have reached a compromise where we’ve got a proper, tight welfare licensing regime without the need for total prohibition.”

Whether circus-goers would prefer to see animals is a moot point.

The US’ most famous circus, the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey, retired its elephants last year because local legislation prevented them working in key markets such as Los Angeles. Without the jumbos, however, ticket sales plummeted and this May the 146-year-old ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ will close its doors for the last time.

America’s Melha Shrine Circus, meanwhile, has reintroduced tigers and elephants after touring without them last year and losing money for the first time in 63 years.

“We had people asking for refunds after finding out there were no animals,” said chairman Allen Zippin.

Circus critic David Lewis Hammarstrom, who recalls 50 years of covering the US scene in his new book Big Top Typewriter, claims: “The tide may be turning. Small bands of noisy animal rights activists who have dominated city halls and courtrooms for decades are now having to share media time with an emerging sector of the public adamantly favouring the circus with animals.”

When Anthony Beckwith, a director of An Evening With Lions and Tigers, is asked what motivates him to work in a sector under continual attack from animal rights groups, he says: “The fact I know what’s said about what we do is wrong.”

Pointing out the popularity of dog acts on Britain’s Got Talent and live ponies in pantomimes, Beckwith adds: “People don’t like the idea that animals are mistreated, but I believe if we’re open and show people how we train and keep the animals, then we can change public opinion.”

Chipperfield, who trains and presents the animals in An Evening With Lions and Tigers, believes Britain’s circus scene could learn from Europe, where shows with animals are still prevalent and successful.

Having spent the past winter touring with two of Italy’s biggest circuses, where he worked alongside tigers, elephants, horses and hippos, he says that, by comparison: “No one in the UK currently knows what a completely authentic circus is. While Britain may have created the modern circus, that perfect formula has survived in Europe – and long may it prosper and inspire.”

Part of The Stage special edition focussing on circus. For more circus coverage click here