For generations of Canadians, trips to the circus were the highlight of many a long, hot summer. Every year, families flocked to the big top
to laugh at bumbling clowns, marvel at heart-stopping high-wire acts and applaud the skill of sequined horseback riders. But the biggest thrills were provided by the ani-
mals—fearsome beasts from the mysterious jungles of far-off Africa and Asia. Children screamed with delight as tigers jumped through fiery hoops to the crack of a trainer’s whip or elephants wrapped show girls in their trunks and performed a clumsy pirouette. However, last year, Toronto followed the example of several other Canadian cities and banned acts using exotic animals.
The greatest show on earth, said the politicians, was actually cruel and unsafe.
Nonsense, said circus managers, who joined forces with Toronto’s SkyDome stadium and took the city to court. Last month, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the prohibition.
“Every kid loves circus animals,” said Tony O’Donohue, a Toronto city councillor. “It’s a part of childhood.” While the ruling reopened the showplaces of Canada’s wealthiest entertainment market to circuses and other animal exhibitors, the debate still rages over the treatment of animals exploited commercially.
Animal welfare supporters have persuaded several cities, including Vancouver and Winnipeg, to turn away circus troupes that come to town with tigers or other beasts in tow. “We are forcing wild animals to do unnatural things,” said Shelagh MacDonald, program director of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. Other critics claim that caged animals, driven by instinct to roam free, often suffer from boredom, disorientation and selfmutilation. Their complaints deal not only with circuses, but also with zoos, roadside attractions and animals kept as pets. However, heightened public interest has led both cir-
cuses and zoos to make life better for animals. Vancouver’s 21-acre Stanley Park Zoo is now closing its original grounds and finding new homes for some animals. The rest will have more spacious quarters. “We can’t just keep these animals to entertain us,” said manager Michael Mackintosh. “Those days are over.” Many experts say that banishing jungle
animals altogether would be extreme. ‘What we need are minimum standards to protect animals,’’said Dale Smith, an assistant professor at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph. That view was reflected in Toronto’s decision to welcome circus animals back to town; the city elected to push for higher animal-care standards rather than try again to keep the circuses out. Toronto had originally shut the door after concluding that some animals were being treated cruelly. Still other experts embroiled in the emotional debate insist that wild animals performing in a confined space can endanger the public. In one case, six elephants, frightened by the noise of a falling ladder at a 1988 show of the Garden Brothers Circus in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, nearly blundered into a group of fans in wheelchairs.
Circus officials claim such incidents are exaggerated. “We have not had a single accident in 123 years,” said Richard Froemming, a spokesman for the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus, headquartered in Vienna, Va., which joined the fight against the Toronto bylaw. “We don’t* need animal apartheid.” As evidence, he says that Ringling Bros, performs to 11 million people in 92 U.S. cities each year and, while there have been protests by animal rights groups, “we’ve been at the forefront of animal welfare for years. I’ve never heard of a case where an animal was depressed.”
But critics say captive animals are kept amid conditions that induce numerous medical and psychological problems. Nanaimo, B.C., veterinarian Ken Langelier says that what he sees in circuses often sickens him: malnourished tigers, monkeys with their fingers bitten off and elephants biting one another or pacing nervously. When they are finished jumping through hoops or waltzing in tutus, animals often travel to the next town in cages barely large enough to hold them, Langelier said. Added Langelier, who has investigated the treatment of circus animals for several years: “There is a lot of psychotic behavior.”
Experts have found similar behavior in zoos and roadside exhibits where wild creatures may stay in tiny cages for most of their lives. Robert Laidlaw recalled once visiting a small ramshackle zoo in Wasaga Beach, Ont. “It looked like boy scouts had built it over a weekend,” said Laidlaw, now a director of Zoocheck Canada, a private organization pledged to protect animals in captivity. He found a shackled four-month-old bear bawling
like an infant, while other animals crouched nearby in cages covered in excrement.
In many animals, the stress of captivity, combined with aggressive instincts, can be a dangerous mix. In Mississauga, Ont., a 600pound tiger bolted at the Shrine Circus in 1990 and ran around a shopping centre parking lot for 10 minutes before being captured. That followed a 1988 matinee rehearsal of the Moscow Circus at an exhibition ground in Toronto when a rebellious bear eluded his trainer and ran from the tent in a short-lived bid for freedom. The hazards even extend to exotic pets. Last year, a python squeezed its owner, Mark Neville of Brampton, Ont., to death. Five years ago, in Waterloo, Ont., a cougar being walked on a leash mauled a four-year-old child. “These are large, dangerous animals,” said Laidlaw. “If they become enraged outside a cage, there is not much you can do.”
But public awareness is forcing zoos and circuses to respond by treating animals with respect and housing them in comfort. Modem zoos provide larger enclosures that give animals some privacy and mimic their natural environments. At the Calgary Zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre, cold-weather animals can live beyond the public glare in a 220-acre conservation area. Said Robert Cooper, the zoo’s head of veterinary services: “Animals can choose if they want to see you.”
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