Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Elephants on a trapeze – is a ban on circus animals backed up by the evidence?

Right, now the inspiration for this post came from a thread on the Bad Science forum. It's not an area in which I have the slightest expertise; however, like some of the posters in that thread, and perhaps like many people generally, I have an in-built moral compass that assumed that keeping performing animals in circuses is wrong. I couldn't really suggest a valid reason - the best I could come up with would be something along the lines of "well, it's cruel and inhumane, it's obvious". If asked to justify why this was my opinion, I'd run out of steam very quickly.

The Independent newspaper has been running a campaign against the use of wild circus animals, and recently reported on the House of Commons voting to ban their use (24 June 2011). It's arguably a popular move, as it aligns them with the press (unless other newspapers have been running a campaign to increase the number of circus animals; if they have, then I've missed that one), and it'll ring some nice bells with the electorate (always a good thing). And the vocal animal rights lobby will be very pleased indeed with this. 

But are the reasons for a ban actually backed up by the evidence?

We have a report from DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) from 2007, entitled 'Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses'. They report the number of wild animals being used in British circuses as 'less than 50' (the Independent report above quotes a number of 39). Amongst their conclusions are - 

  • The Academic Panel concluded that there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments
  • It is concluded that in relation to England, Wales, and Scotland, the consequence of the Academic Panel’s Report is that Ministers do not have before them scientific evidence sufficient to demonstrate that travelling circuses are not compatible with meeting the welfare needs of any type of non-domesticated animal presently being used in the United Kingdom.  
So, they state quite clearly that circuses do not typically fall foul of current animal legislation. We do of course hear of ill-treatment of wild circus animals every so often. These cases do tend to stick in the mind, and can induce the perception that this sort of cruelty is routine in circuses. Presumably it is not. I can't quite grasp that circuses would amble about their daily business whilst beating their performing elephant with a stick, as not only would this risk bad publicity and the close attention of the not-always-so-liberal activists, but they would be at risk of losing their licenses and their livelihood. 

The DEFRA report also concludes that - 

  • The  overriding conclusion of this exercise is that 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.  Once the relevant policy is decided  upon, its implementation is essentially a question of politics and law; science, on this occasion, provides no relevant guidance as to the appropriate principle to be adopted.  
So, it's not purely a scientific decision; the politics are important too. Of course they are - but should they be? A brief search of pubmed produces some interesting papers. 

One Veterinary Journal publication (June 2011) suggests that 'Animal welfare issues cannot simply be addressed by means of objective biological measurements of an animal's welfare status under certain circumstances.' The Bad Science thread discusses the use of cortisol as a biological measure of stress levels in animals - can we use this as a gauge of how relaxed an animal is? The points were made that a captive environment is a low-stress place to be, as there is no threat of predators, poachers and there is 24-hour veterinary care available nearby. Regardless of whether cortisol is a good biological marker, the authors of this VJ paper conclude ' In assessing whether or not a given welfare status is morally acceptable, animal welfare scientists must be aware that scientifically based, operational definitions of animal welfare will necessarily be influenced strongly by a given society's moral understanding.' 

A 2011 paper by Fabregas et al suggests that in zoos, a 'naturalistic enclosure' tended to provide a more suitable environment for that species than a non-naturalistic one. On this basis, a circus is less likely to be providing a decent living quarters for their lions than a good zoo. However, the point still stands that the animals are theoretically 'safer' in their captive environment than they are knocking about the African plains. 

How is the behaviour of captive wild animals? Again, dipping into the world of zoos, there is this paper from Birkett and Newton-Fisher on primate behaviour, and they concluded that 'while most behaviour of zoo-living chimpanzees is 'normal' in that it is typical of their wild counterparts, abnormal behaviour is endemic in this 
population despite enrichment efforts'. Can this sort of finding be extrapolated to circus wild animals? Can we also clearly suggest that their behaviour is abnormal enough to be concerning? 

So, a few points raised, with arguments for and against the motion. Clearly politics and public opinion hold great sway here. Perhaps circus animals are mostly unstressed, they do see a good vet now and again, and there are not that many of them anyway. However, there are high profile examples of animal cruelty and they may behave undesirably abnormally. Plus, who actually needs a circus with animals when we have some excellent zoos in the UK? 

I started this blog post ill-informed on the facts, yet with a clear opinion that the keeping of circus wild animals  is cruel. I now consider myself far better informed of some of the key issues, and am more confused than I ever was before. I'm off for a fag and a beer - (Camel in the coat pocket and Tiger in the fridge, in case you were wondering). 

This has not been based on an exhaustive literature search, and it's an area of which I know little. Do send me corrections of inaccuracies or good links to further reports or an evidence base. I'm keen to be educated here! 

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