Russian law protects Moscow State Circus monopoly
MOSCOW, NEW DELHI––New legislation in Russia, whose circuses have for almost a century been the most attended worldwide, and in India, where the circus tradition started, appear to be among the final acts in several thousand years of traveling exhibitions of performing animals.
The new Russian “Law on Responsible Treatment of Animals,” signed into effect on December 26, 2018 by Russian president Vladimir Putin, “bans petting zoos from being opened at malls, which is a common thing across Russia, as well as hosting animals at bars and restaurants,” explained the state-funded RT television network, formerly known as Russia Today.
“Makes life harder for semi-legal circuses”
Further, said RT, “The law makes life harder for numerous semi-legal circuses across Russia, which often use dangerous wild animals in their shows.”
RT recalled that in April 2014, “two bears escaped from a café and caused major havoc in Yaroslavl. One of the animals was captured, but the other went into town and was shot dead.”
“In October,” RT continued, “Russia was shocked after a lioness attacked a four-year-old girl during a traveling circus performance in Krasnodar. The child survived but suffered facial lacerations and other injuries.”
The new Russian “Law on Responsible Treatment of Animals” also forbids keeping exotic pets “without a proper license,” a clause which appears to exempt trainers for the government-owned Moscow State Circus, who have historically acquired performing animals early in the animals’ lives, and have raised and trained them in their family homes until the animals become large enough to require separate quarters.
Most Moscow State circus companies have phased out animals
Most of the many touring companies that are part of the Moscow State Circus, operating under a variety of names, have already phased animal use out of shows that feature human gymnasts, aerialists, jugglers, dancers, and clowns.
The Moscow-based Circus Nikulin, however, performing almost exclusively within the older and smaller of two Moscow circus venues, still features bears, tigers, a leopard, monkeys, a kangaroo, a raccoon, and an iguana, according to mid-2018 British tabloid media accounts.
In addition, a Great Moscow Circus troupe that performed in Australia and Indonesia in 2015-2017 featured “four camels, three llamas, two water buffalo, six welsh mountain ponies and two macaws,” news coverage agreed, but the company went bankrupt in March 2017, leaving 13 human performers stranded in Ballarat, Victoria state, Australia.
The incident was at least the fourth since 1990 in which a Moscow State Circus affiliate ran out of money, leaving human performers stranded, and sometimes animals as well.
One big tent since 1919
Bringing Russian circuses together under one big administrative tent in 1919, the former Soviet government sponsored the Moscow State Circus as both a major source of domestic entertainment and a highly successful mechanism for promoting Soviet ideals abroad.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union and years of economic stability, the Moscow State Circus was slated for privatization in 2007, but under Putin has been reabsorbed as a government institution.
Putin has, however, encouraged the direction away from animal use.
“When we think of circuses”
“When we think of circuses,” recently wrote Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations executive director Varda Mehrotra, “we think of huge tents, clowns, and trapeze performances,” but none of those things were in existence yet when traveling animal shows originated––at least so far as the historical record shows––in India during the Golden Age, between 400 and 600 CE.
During the next thousand years the Kalendar tribal people of India, in particular, took dancing bear acts as far as Europe. Others ventured to both Europe and China with monkeys, elephants, tigers, Asiatic lions, and snake-charming acts. Jugglers, dancers, magicians, and musicians often performed in the same town squares, castle courtyards, and marketplaces.
Exhibitions of daring horseback riding evolved separately in Central Asia, probably first competing with the other touring acts for tossed coins in the marketplaces of Afghanistan or Persia.
Circus as we know it
All of the elements of the modern circus were in place by the High Middle Ages, yet were not brought together as components of a single enterprise until English stunt riding entrepreneur Philip Astley––who was already recognized as the first stunt rider to perform tricks on a horse moving in a circle, not a straight line––formed his first circus in 1768. Astley added acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers and a clown to his shows in 1770.
Exotic animal acts moved into the center ring through the success and influence of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Baily Circus, which originated in 1796 when farmer Hackaliah Baily, of Somers, New York, bought the first elephant brought to the U.S. from sea captain Jacob Crowninshield and toured the east coast for 20 years.
The Ringling and Barnum names were added later, through mergers that led to the debut of the first traveling three-ring circus in 1871.
The Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Baily Circus remained on the road, with shows mostly focused on elephants, until 2017.
Carnivore acts banned first
The multi-act circus as developed in England and the U.S. “came to India in the year 1880,” Mehrotra recalled, “when Vishnupant Chatre, inspired by the Royal Italian Circus, came up with The Great Indian Circus.
“Circuses have grown since,” Mehrotra continued, “and unfortunately, with them grew the exploitation of animals,” including acts such as “tigers jumping through burning rings, lions walking in a line, elephants standing on stools, hippos playing with balls, dogs on bicycles and parrots balancing balls on their heads.”
The Animal Welfare Board of India in 1978 took the lead worldwide in responding to cruelty to circus animals, banning the use of bears, monkeys, and big cats such as lions and tigers in traveling shows, but the edict went unenforced until 2001, when it was belatedly affirmed by the Supreme Court of India.
More than 280 lions, 40 tigers, and several dozen ex-performing bears were transferred to seven animal rescue centers accredited by the Indian Central Zoo Authority.
Elephant acts next––and now all animals?
The Central Zoo Authority then decreed in 2009 that elephants could no longer be exhibited by zoos and circuses, but was unable to enforce that order until the Animal Welfare Board quit licensing elephants for circus use in 2013.
Finally, “on the Animal Welfare Board of India and Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations’ recommendations,” Mehrotra recounted, “the Central Zoo Authority banned the use of any wild animals for performances in circuses in the year 2017.”
Then, Mehrotra said, “on November 28, 2018, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change proposed a ban on the use of all animals in circuses. This proposal is currently up for debate for 30 days, after which the ban could be implemented.”
The 30 days ended on December 28, 2018, with a final decision by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change pending.
New Jersey & Hawaii
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on December 14, 2018 signed into law a bill banning the use of wild and exotic animals in traveling acts, the first of its kind, although Illinois and New York earlier prohibited the use of elephants in entertainment.
Just ten days later, Hawaii Governor David Ige “signed an amendment to Hawaii law prohibiting the import of dangerous wild animals for exhibition in circuses and carnivals,” reported Nina Wu of the Honolulu Star Advertiser, for what Ige termed reasons of “public safety and health.”
“Under the amended rules,” wrote Wu, “dangerous wild animals” are defined as “a non-domestic animal that can cause significant risk to animal and public health,” including specifically “lions, tigers, cheetahs, bears, wolves, elephants, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, alligators, and non-human primates, including gorillas and chimpanzees.
These species may, however, be imported into Hawaii “for exhibition in government zoos and for the filming of television and movies under permit and conditions from the state Department of Agriculture,” Wu noted.
HSUS & PETA claim credit
Said Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block, “This regulation resulted from a legal petition filed by the Humane Society of the United States in 2014.
“The danger of using wild animals for traveling shows was put on terrible display in Honolulu in 1994,” Block remembered, “when an elephant named Tyke killed her trainer and mauled another animal handler shortly before a performance for the Great American Circus.”
Charging out into the street, Tyke was shot by police several blocks away.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the local organization Animal Rights Hawaii also had a part in winning the new Hawaii regulation.
PETA in August 2014 reportedly dissuaded the Moscow International Circus, part of the Moscow State Circus, from bringing an animal show to Hawaii. Performing at the Neal S. Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu, where the Tyke incident occurred, the Moscow International Circus used only human performers when the show went on.
Other nations have already banned wildlife use
Many other nations have banned at least the use of wildlife in circus, a trend gathering momentum since 2007.
Among the first, persuaded by campaigns led by Animal Defenders International, were the South American nations of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Paraguay.
Similar bans were adopted by Greece in 2012; Cyprus and El Salvador in 2013; and Mexico and the Netherlands in 2014.
Enforcing the bans has, however, proved problematic.
Three years after Peru officially stopped the use of wildlife in circuses, a nominally banned lion named Smith nearly killed schoolteacher Roxana Guevara Huaraca, 32, during an August 14, 2014 performance of the Monaco Circus in Santa Rosa, in the district of San Sebastian, near Cuzco.
England & Ireland
Successive British governments have repeatedly announced plans to prohibit all wild animal use in circuses by 2020, but the plans have not yet taken legislative form.
Ireland has not enacted a ban on wildlife use in circuses either, but Tom Duffy’s Circus, the last to exhibit lions and tigers in Ireland, discontinued big cat acts in June 2013, under pressure from Animal Defenders International and the since disbanded Animal Rights Action Network.
Last of the Chipperfields
Tigers and lions had been exhibited for the 137-year-old Duffy Circus since 1988 by Thomas Chipperfield and other members of the Chipperfield family.
The Chipperfields are descended from James Chipperfield, who offered a dancing bear act at the Thomas Frost Fair on the frozen Thames River outside of London in 1683-1684.
Thomas Chipperfield tried to continue his career as a circus lion tamer back in the United Kingdom, conducting an abortive tour of Wales in 2015, but since then has been unable to obtain a license to exhibit animals from the U.K. Department of Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs
Chipperfield Circus broke up in 1990
Thomas Chipperfield may have been the last member of the family to receive feature billing in a traveling animal show. Many Chipperfields, however, still work in animal-related businesses.
Chipperfield’s Circus, once the biggest in the U.K., split into two separate units circa 1960, one with the original name and the other called Mary Chipperfield’s Circus. Both had quit touring with animals by 1990.
Mary Cawley Chipperfield, 61, and her husband Roger Cawley, who owned Mary Chipperfield’s Circus, were in January 26, 1999 convicted of multiple counts of cruelty toward a young chimpanzee and a sick elephant. Earlier, one of their staff, Stephen Gillis, was convicted on related charges for allegedly beating an elephant with an iron bar, shovel, broom, and pitchfork.