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Douglas McPherson: Actors need to rethink their double standards over circus animals

Thomas Chipperfield performing
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As Britain’s last lion tamer, Thomas Chipperfield is used to facing down predators. So the 25-year-old was quick to fight back when Amanda Holden attacked his use of wild animals in a heated exchange on This Morning, last week.

When Holden spoke of her involvement with Born Free, an animal rights organisation that campaigns against circuses and zoos, Chipperfield accused her of “double standards” in relation to her appearance with trained wild animals in the drama series Wild at Heart.

The spat made exciting television. But it also highlighted two important issues. First, Holden is far from the only actor to campaign against the use of animals in circuses while happy to appear with them on screen. Second, the circus industry is more connected to the use of animals in other spheres of entertainment than many people think.

The lions, giraffe and other creatures that appeared in Wild at Heart, for example, were trained by Alex Larenty who learned his craft growing up on Chipperfield Circus, then Europe’s largest, in the 1960s. He’s also worked for Gerry Cottle’s Circus and the Blackpool Tower Circus.

Furthermore, the animals came from Lion Park, a reserve in South Africa that regularly supplies animals for film and which was founded by Thomas Chipperfield’s grandfather and great uncles.

All the techniques of modern animal training originated in the big top. Philip Astley, the father of the circus, trained horses with a reward-based system known as clicker training nearly 250 years before it became the buzzword among today’s pet owners.

And although the number of circuses with animals has dwindled in recent times, they remain the first port of call when animals are needed for stage, film and TV.

As animal consultant Rona Brown explained in The Stage last year:

Circus animals are used to people, lights and travelling, and they’re biddable. You might be training them to do something they wouldn’t in a circus but because they’re trained every day they look on it as another training exercise

With animals featuring so prominently in drama and advertising, it’s surprising that more actors don’t display their support for circus trainers as fellow entertainers, but every year sees big names such as Roger Moore – who worked with trained animals in the Bond film Octopussy – calling for a ban on animals in the circus.

Brian Blessed has at least twice stood on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street to join Animal Defenders International in calling for a ban. Between those appearances, however, he spent a season in the London stage production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang alongside Sallyann Ronescu’s Comedy Dogs, which regularly appear in circuses. According to the trainer, Blessed showed no disapproval of the dogs’ husbandry.

More recently, Martin Freeman wrote to the prime minister on behalf of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) urging the introduction of a ban. Not long before, he’d starred as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit film series, which came under fire from PETA for its use of horses.

As Dr Watson in TV’s Sherlock, meanwhile, Freeman worked with trained dogs in the Hounds of the Baskervilles episode.

Such double standards aren’t limited to Britain. In America, Alec Baldwin made a video for PETA urging viewers: “Don’t patronise animal acts.”

In the 1990s, however, Baldwin starred in The Edge with Bart, a trained bear that appeared in at least a dozen Hollywood movies. Since making his PETA video, Baldwin was also happy to grab a photo opportunity with third-generation circus performer Jenny Vidbel and two of the animals she was presenting in New York’s Big Apple Circus – a small dog riding on the back of a Shetland pony.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with actors expressing their personal disapproval of circus animals. But if they are sincere, they should refrain from accepting big cheques to perform with animals on screen and stage.

For some celebrities, endorsing an animal rights organisation is probably just another paying job – or an opportunity to create a caring image in the eyes of the public.

Those who have no objection to seeing animals on screen, however, should consider the wider issues before attacking circuses.

If circus animals are banned, not only will the stage, film and television industries lose a source of trained animals, but they will find themselves the next target of an animal rights movement that seeks to eradicate animals from all forms of entertainment. In fact, that is already happening.

Last year, the BBC came under attack from Born Free and the Captive Animals Protection Society over the use of animals in the drama series Our Zoo. Perhaps coincidentally, a second series was not commissioned.

Animal entertainers have always been popular, from famous names like Lassie and Flipper to the performing dogs on Britain’s Got Talent.

It would be a shame if they disappeared, and doubly so if their demise was hastened by actors who believe they can attack the circus without affecting their own industry.

Douglas McPherson is the author of Circus Mania