Wetenschap - 7 november 2012

Ban on circus animals is symbol politics

The new cabinet's proposal to ban circuses from keeping wild animals is a form of symbol politics, says Hans Hopster, lector in Animal Welfare at Van Hall Larenstein, who researched into the welfare of circus animals in 2008.


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'Although this appears to be a very staunch move, it will not have any far-reaching effects as there are not many wild animals in circuses in the Netherlands which can benefit from it. In 2008, we encountered about 120 of such animals in six circuses. Most of them were horses and camels and they did not seem any worse for wear. We came across seven lions, 11 tigers and three elephants.'
How was their wellbeing?
'I don't think elephants should be kept in circuses anymore; the environment is not right for them. Being true browsers, it is in their nature to spend a lot of time gathering food. In the nature, their diet is a meagre one; hay is in fact too rich for them. Circus workers have to break their backs trying to get sufficient rations for elephants. Moreover, the elephants we came across were often chained to keep them safe for humans and other animals. As a result, they can get very bored, especially when they are alone or have just one or two others for company. Elephants are in fact extremely social animals. A ban on elephants is therefore a good thing.
'Unlike elephants, lions and tigers can procreate within a circus. The environment therefore does not seem too unfavourable as to adversely affect their desire to reproduce. Animals born in captivity may have less problems adjusting to that environment than animals captured in the wild. It does make you wonder: what is a wild animal?  Many circus animals are in a grey area on a sliding scale of domestication.'
What about the situation in a zoo?
'In the United States, discussions are currently taking place as to whether elephants should continue to be kept in zoos. Similar concerns are also being raised about many other zoo animals. The polar bear needs to keep walking before it gets hungry, and is fully programmed to make long journeys to find food. In the zoo, its constant pacing to and fro has become its stereotype behaviour. At the start of this year, we published a study in which the public was asked if priority should be given to the interests of man or that of animals when they are engaged in a circus. The result was convincing: the circus business should place the interests of the animals above those of man. I believe that the public will therefore support the ban.'
What's the next step?
'I express animal welfare in terms of kilograms of animal suffering, based on the number of animals and the duration and seriousness of the suffering. My advice to the government would be: do not waste too much effort on a handful of circus animals, but pay attention to hereditary problems in the breeding industry and to the millions of animals in the farms. The coalition agreement does not say much about that, except by recognizing the advice from the Van Doorn Committee as authoritative in making the sector more sustainable. That advice contains many sound judgements, but I don't see any concrete proposals on how to improve the welfare of our farm animals.'