The debate over whether using wild animals in a circus is cruel and unnatural is one that still rages on, even in 2020. It is a passionate discussion that seems to have no middle ground. Circus owners know that a roaring lion and a prancing elephant sell out venues, while animal activists argue that wildlife living in and oftentimes bred into this kind of captivity, live unnatural and sometimes cruel existences.
The debate has resulted in over 40 countries banning the use of animals in circuses.
But South Africa is not one of those countries.
Under the Performing Animals Protection Amendment Act, circuses can use wildlife so long as they have a license and are regularly inspected, to ensure that the animals are healthy, well-treated and living in comfort. With such stringent measures, it is difficult for those against the use of wildlife in circuses to claim abuse. But the possibility of abuse is not the only reason why animal rights activists are against these environments. The fact that animals are living life in a cage is in itself considered cruel and unnatural.
What I personally find strange is why South Africans would want to view wildlife in a circus environment. We live so close to nature, and in places like Nelspruit, with the Kruger being right on our doorstep, it is difficult to imagine that we would need or want to see wildlife in such an unnatural way.
Some argue that such circuses are educational, that perhaps they give people an easier way to access wildlife and learn about it. I don’t agree with this opinion, because not only are the tickets pricey, but since the circus is not a natural habitat, what exactly are people learning?
The issue of wildlife in captivity recently raised tensions once again in Nelspruit, with the building of what can only be described at this moment as a zoo. While mulling over the recent tensions, I remembered I had stacks of photos from a protest held by the same group of people who are now questioning, once more, the ethics of keeping animals in captivity.
In 2019, on an ice cold weekend, McLaren Circus rolled into Nelspruit. They had been advertising for around a week before their arrival, which gave protesters enough time to organise a WhatsApp group and plan action for every performance set to take place in the week that McLaren would be in town. From afternoon to evening, armed with banners and nerves of steel, the protesters arrived.
I joined them one afternoon to capture their side of the story. Not only did I get a keen insight into their fight, but I was also given the unique opportunity to peak into human nature and just how passionate and caring we can be.
The morning before the protest, I took a slow drive to the circus grounds. In a dilapidated part of town, with rusted barbed wire fencing and broken buildings, the circus set up its tents and caravans.
Icy cold, heavy grey clouds had settled in for the day, unusual for September and, for a show meant for families and children, the environment could not have been more depressing.
At around 13:45 my friend and I met up and drove to the venue. Bit by bit the protesters arrived, and unloaded their signs. They had protested the night before and were reliving the evening for the rest of us.
Two protesters, in particular, stood out; a young mother and her young daughter.
Throughout the afternoon, the child held onto her sign and from time to time her mother would attentively explain to her why they were protesting.
While other children were there to be entertained, this one was there to learn a lesson that will serve her for life: stand up peacefully for what you believe, even if it is an unpopular opinion.
The group assembled well before the first cars rolled in. As things began to get busy, the abuse started. A circus employee drove aggressively outside of the grounds, veering threateningly towards the group, kicking up dust. His window down, he flipped a finger while shouting at the group to “fuck off”.
Attendees also had their occasional words for the group and the disdainful, judgemental glares became a regular thing.
But through all of this, the group remained undaunted. They also did their best not to react, saying that if they did, they would be lowering themselves to the standards of those being abusive.
One of the group’s leaders, a lady named Keli, kept spirits up in the fierce cold that engulfed the afternoon. A passionate supporter of wildlife, she continued to remind the group why they were there, especially when abuse was thrown their way.
She was also resolute in her goal of making sure that every passing car had her undivided attention. Cars packed with curious faces peering out at the group and its bold signs, were met by Keli’s sign first.
Hearing a car coming, she’d break off conversation, turn towards the car and hold the sign up high, so no one could miss it.
Eventually her perseverance paid off.
People were entering the arena tent and the show was about to begin when a lady and her child walked out of the venue and approached the group. Having seen the signs, she and her child had become upset and wanted to understand why the group was there.
Keli, joined by two other protesters, started talking to her and explained how the animals had ended up in captivity (generally bred), and how in some cases had to endure harsh training techniques. They also explained how circus performance antics were not the animal’s natural behaviour.
The group answered all of her questions and, deciding that the circus wasn’t the kind of place for her or her child, the lady left.
There was no shouting, there was no screaming. No tyres were burned, no one was hurt.
On the surface, it doesn’t look like much was achieved. Wildlife circuses while widely condemned, are still free to operate. And as the prospect of having a zoo in the city sparks that flare of rage once more, it is safe to say that although the law allows the captivity of wildlife for zoos and circuses, the fight for their freedom (or perhaps rather the freedom of future generations) will continue.