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Zoos, emphasising natural behaviour and conservation, remain more popular than ever. Gabriel Pollard/Flickr, CC BY

Ringling Bros circus closure shows our changing attitudes to animals in captivity

The recently announced closure of the Ringling circus in the US, which has been running more than a century, has been heralded as bringing to an end an era when it was seen as entertaining for humans, especially children, to view animals performing tricks: dogs riding bicycles, elephants dancing, and lions jumping through hoops.

At almost the same time the killer whale Tilikum at Seaworld, Orlando, died. His shows will not be replaced, again ending an era of public entertainment by showing them animals doing tricks.

So attitudes must have changed since that time – we’ve become more ethical. Or have we?

Circus popularity waning

People no longer have to visit circuses to see animals perform tricks; videos are available by the thousands that effectively portray the same thing. In these animals are frequently doing unnatural and bizarre acts: dogs riding surfboards, or cats on sledges.

However, there is one important difference. Circuses reportedly use cruel methods to train animals, which are kept in cramped conditions, particularly when travelling from town to town.

This leads to performance of stereotyped behaviours, like weaving in elephants. These persist even after animals are retired from circuses and are evidence of poor welfare of circus animals.

The main reason that circuses such as Ringling Brothers Circus are closing is because of declining attendance, due in part to the many alternative attractions for children today.

Associated with this has been the unrelenting criticism by a wide variety of animal advocacy groups, from the more moderate, such as the RSPCA, to the more radical, such as PETA. Their strong influence on public opinion, through highly efficient use of modern media, is evident.

Circuses have fought back. In a recent review of The Welfare of Performing Animals by David Wilson, animal behaviourist Marthe Kiley-Worthington cites the amazing tasks that animals have been trained to perform as reason to maintain these outmoded forms of entertainment.

She justifies circuses on the grounds that animals don’t know that the tricks are demeaning to them, and that there is cruelty in every animal industry. This is like saying that murdering people is acceptable because people also kill during wars.

Viewing animals being belittled in this way – in particular animals forced to behave like children – is wrong because it damages our relationship with animals. It encourages anthropocentrism, in which humans must dominate and control the animal kingdom.

Zoos keep public support

Zoos have escaped criticism that their displays encourage humans to adopt such an anthropocentric attitude.

Firstly, this is because they attempt to keep animals in as natural a setting as possible. Nothing could be further from nature than a chimp riding a bicycle around a circus arena, but in a zoo chimps will have enrichment that supports their natural behaviour and companionship that replicates their social grouping in the wild.

Second, zoos purport to have both conservation and educational roles.

Third, they do not make extensive use of negative reinforcement, or punishment, when they teach animals tricks, if they do that at all.

Although live demonstrations of tigers, seals and other zoo animals are more popular than ever before, they focus on demonstrating animals’ capabilities in the wild or their physical prowess.

Why are attitudes changing?

This is evidence of a mature and responsible attitude towards animals developing in the public. This is due in no small measure to the public being shown the breadth and depth of the animal kingdom through modern media.

Since Charles Darwin’s day it has become increasingly clear that people want and need to see how the animal kingdom lives and functions. This symbiotic relationship may even be deeply embedded in our genetic makeup. It demonstrates that we are acknowledging and acting on our responsibilities for animals.

In the West, the Christian religion has also shaped our attitudes to animals, but its ancient origins provided an outdated, anthropocentric approach to the animal kingdom. As the Bible tells us in its first chapter:

God …said to them [mankind]… “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

The decline of Christianity in the West, for all of the problems that this brings, may have one beneficial effect of encouraging a less dominant attitude towards animals. We may increasingly recognise that we all live in a giant ecosystem and are just as dependent on a vibrant natural world for survival as nature is dependent on us.

We need to understand animals better

With growing public acknowledgement of responsibility to animals, there is the danger of false anthropomorphism. Scientists are rapidly trying to discover what animals feel, but in the absence of this knowledge the public increasingly give animals the benefit of the doubt. This is further evidence of a changing attitude to animals.

From Rudyard Kipling to J.K. Rowling, animals have been credited with powers that no scientist can prove they have – which an objective scientist must condemn as false anthropomorphism. A goat is good at being a goat, but if it devoted 20% of its energy intake to cognitive processes as we do it simply would not survive.

Attributing human qualities to animals that they do not possess may make it easier for children, and some adults, to empathise with them, but it does not help us to provide for their needs in the ecological niche to which they are adapted.

We cannot justify the misery that many circus animals endure by their display of tricks, but neither can we justify ignoring the plight of animals suffering from intensive farming, climate change, habitat destruction or pet overpopulation.

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