Many decades ago, as a child in school, I spent a weekend in the Jumbo Circus camp in Kochi. We had watched a show and walked across the road for dinner, where we were soon joined by a few performers. My curious nature and the desire to experience the circus life had led me there. I spent two nights sleeping in tents, playing with clowns and getting to know the animal handlers. I retain very few memories of that experience, except two — I noticed that all the animals that seemed healthy and active in the ring led very sedentary lives inside their cages all day. Also, to almost everyone in the circus, the tigers and lions were as inanimate as the cages and canons around them.
It wasn’t till years later that I understood the pain and agony of those animals in captivity. So the new notification by the Ministry of Forest, Environment and Climate Change (GSR 1142 (E) dated 28 November 2018) banning the use of animals at circuses delights me beyond measure.
Before trying to understand the new notification, let us understand what the word ‘circus’ means. The dictionary explains a circus as a “group of traveling performers, including acrobats or those who work with trained animals, or a performance by such people usually in a large tent”. Acrobats are defined as “people skilled in difficult physical movements”. According to Circopedia, circuses made their debut in India in 1880, and since then, the circus industry has seen plenty of twists and turns. But they have been in the news for many wrong reasons, primary among them being the cruelty the performing animals are subjected to and disasters that have resulted in a loss of lives, both animal and human.
Circuses are essentially a primitive concept of entertainment that has no relevance today. Like zoos, they existed during the days when there was little family entertainment or exposure to animals was limited to reading and such places of captive exhibition. Circuses have been a hellhole for humans, too – it wasn’t until 2011 that employment or use of children in circuses was banned. Children born in the community were mostly destined to continue the legacy as circus owners, which established an unwritten form of bonded labor in the guise of skills being passed on from one generation to another. Hundreds of instances and suspicions of child trafficking, children being kidnapped and sold to circuses, sexual abuse, forced into drug addiction and subjected to physical abuse to perform have always surrounded them.
Being an acrobat is no easy task either, as children are put through vigorous training, dieting (ever seen an obese acrobat?) and risks in extremely unkind conditions. If this is how humans were trained and handled, what do you think the plight of animals would have been like? Animals captured young, separated from their mothers or family and confined to chains and cages to “entertain” is nothing but barbaric. And that’s the least of the cruelties inflicted on them.
Circuses in India had a free run till 2001 when the Performing Animals (Registration) Rules came into force, and then in 2017, when, for the first time, the use of wild animals — animals protected under The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, was banned. In 2001, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of Section 22 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, as well as a notification dated 14 October 1998, issued by the Centre prohibiting the exhibition and training of bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers, and lions.
Raids have revealed the use of sticks with nails, whips with metal wires, use of ankus (metal rods with sharp-tipped hooks) and severely injured animals because of their use, especially elephants. Animals with severe orthopedic issues, blindness, fatigue, old age, infancy have all been forced to perform, train or travel, with no veterinarian support, in spite of the fact that regulations mandated the employment of a permanent vet for a group of more than 10 animals.
The ban on the use of animals at circuses is not just a victory for animals, but also marks the end of all forms of supremacy and speciesism — the bane of human existence. Animals bred in captivity, or separated from the wild and held prisoner all their lives and subjected to extreme cruelty as objects of entertainment and public display is nothing but a shame on humanity. The ban comes many years too late, as hundreds of animals — from Pomeranians to parrots, goats to hippos — have suffered immensely for human “fun” disguised as an art form.
Many circuses still lack basic safety and disaster management provisions, making them potential death traps awaiting the next ban on temporary tents and high-risk forms of entertainment. For now, the ban on the use of animals across the board is nothing but a sign of the rise of animal rights in India. We have taken a step forward now, and hopefully, we should very soon see the curtains rise on laws providing relief to all animals in captivity — for human food, fun, fashion or fitness.