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Global Ideas

Do animals belong in the circus ring?

The Netherlands is poised to join the growing list of countries to ban the use of animals for ringside entertainment purposes. How inhumane is the practice?

Animals have been a feature of the circus since the first one opened to the public in England in the 1700's. Back then, former cavalry Sergeant-Major Philip Astley rode around the ring wooing the audience with his horsemanship skills. It was by no means the first time animals had been put on display, but it was the beginning of a movement that has endured into the modern age.

From those modest beginnings, the list of creatures incorporated into circus programs grew to include natural wonders such as elephants, monkey, lions, tigers, bears and goats. For decades, indeed centuries, crowds gawped and cheered as wild animals rode bicycles, stood on their heads, balanced on balls and even leapt through rings of fire.

But in more recent times, those cheers of enthusiasm have died down, drowned out by the shouts of outrage at the unnatural conditions in which four-legged performers are often kept.

Unnecessary suffering

The Netherlands looks set to become the 32nd country in the world to introduce a nationwide bans on the wild animals in the arena.

A report in the country's #link:http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2015/04/dutch-now-poised-to-ban-wild-animals-in-circuses/:Telegraaf newspaper# said a majority of ministers in the Dutch cabinet favored the introduction of a ban to prevent animals in the ring. Junior economic affairs minister said it was "no longer appropriate" to see lions jumping through hoops.

#link:http://www.peta.org/:People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals# (PETA), which has long campaigned for an end to the use of circus animals, says these long periods of confinement on the road often imply a lack of access to "basic necessities such as food, water and veterinary care", adding that they are forced to "eat, drink, sleep, defecate, and urinate" in the same place.

Humans vs. animals

Gorilla in a cage

Animal welfare groups say animals are often forced to live in inhumane conditions

Furthermore, PETA says it has seen undercover video material that shows big cats being "dragged by heavy chains around their necks and hit with sticks", and of bears being "whacked and prodded with long poles." Similarly, they report elephants being "beaten with bull-hooks and shocked with electric prods."

But the issue is divisive. Responding to the probable Netherlands ban, populist PVV parliamentarian Dion Graus, said "there is a lot of fuss about a few circus animals but no vet has ever identified any animal suffering."

#link:http://www.stopcircussuffering.com/:Stop Circus Suffering#, whose name would suggest the opposite, is a campaign run by Animal Defenders International (ADI). It uses documentary evidence of cruelty towards animals in captivity to lobby governments and make circuses a place where the dazzle factor comes from breath-taking human dexterity. And if the success of the Cirque du Soleil is anything to go by, there is clearly a market for just that.

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