Animal welfare advocates are rejoicing this week, as Dublin's City Council has overwhelmingly voted to ban the use of wild animals in circus acts. Because the capital has made this decision, it has left many hopeful that Ireland could be closer to a national ban.
Animal rights groups have long criticized circuses for their treatment of the performers, and as more people learn about the issue — and the intelligence of the animals — the public is starting to speak out against it.
The involvement of animals in circuses has a long history. What started out with menageries and horse trick riding grew to include wild animals like elephants and tigers in the 1830s.
Even before tricks were introduced and the animals were only on display in the earliest days of the modern circus, life wasn't that great for them. Constantly traveling from location to location meant spending a lot of time cramped up, unable to behave naturally. In their tiny cages, they are left to sit in their own waste.
As demand grew for more exciting acts, conditions grew increasingly harsh for the animals. In addition to the stress of constantly being confined, training time became brutal. In order to get them to act in the desired way, animals are chained, whipped, shocked, and even starved until they cooperate. Even with the Animal Welfare Act on the books in 1966, many of those practices continue today.
Once that have outlived their usefulness to perform, they are sent to ranches to be the prize of a canned hunt or are "retired" to facilities where they will be used to breed or be subjects of research, like the elephants recently retired from Ringling Bros.
Dublin's decision to ban wild animals in circuses within the city follows in the footsteps of other Irish cities that have made similar restrictions. Circuses will still be allowed to perform with domesticated animals like horses and dogs, which has left some disappointed. Still, it's a huge step forward and could be a sign that there will be more to come.
Currently, there are only four countries that have nationwide bans on the use of any animals in the circus, but 27 other countries have national restrictions based on species. Several US cities have restrictions regarding performing animals, but nothing even at the state level, let alone federal.
That might not always be the case, as public opinion about using animals for entertainment is shifting and real change can be seen because of it. Concerns about the treatment of orcas has led SeaWorld to end its captive breeding program and change the way shows will be done.
Of course, bans on animals don't have to mean the end of circuses entirely. There will always be an audience for those wanting to see incredible people performing stunts, acrobatics, music, dance, and more. In fact, taking animals out of the production altogether might even attract bigger audiences, with more people wanting to attend because it will have taken away the dark cloud of animal cruelty looming over the big top.
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