India: The uphill fight to ban circuses from using wild animals

Rajesh having a shower

When Maya arrived at the Wildlife SOS Elephant Rescue Centre at Mathura, she weighed 3,890 kilos (8,558 pounds).  That may sound like a lot, but for a big elephant like Maya it wasn’t. Maya never seemed to get enough to eat at the circus, and the people there were far from kind.  Now she weighs 4,700 kilos (10,340 pounds), which is just right for a big elephant like Maya.  Her favorite food is musk melons, which are a bit like cantaloupes.

A handsome fellow, Rajesh also came from a circus. When he arrived at the Wildlife SOS Rescue Centre, his legs were weak and wobbly, caused by bad treatment.  He was angry too when he first came, and wouldn’t let anyone near him.

Rajesh is generally calm now and content. He can take a dip in the pool whenever he likes, or chat with Maya over the fence. His legs have regained their strength, he loves going on long walks, and, like Maya, enjoys eating lots of fruit.

His favorite activity is to have a lovely bath, where he gets to relax while his mahout, Sonu, and three others do all the work, scrubbing him from head to toe.

Maya and Rajesh are blessed that their days at the circus are behind them, and they now live in a beautiful sanctuary run by Wildlife SOS.

Dr. Yaduraj, Senior Wildlife Vet for Wildlife SOS, with Chanchal

Circuses everywhere are unkind to animals

Everywhere in the world animals in circuses are treated inhumanely. Using animals for entertainment means forcing them to appear in bright lights, in noisy, crowded environments, where they have to do “tricks” taught to them by harsh training methods.  They travel in abysmal conditions, and are housed in small, cramped quarters.  Worst of all, there is absolutely nothing natural about their lives.  They are deprived of everything that would make a wild animal’s life enjoyable: green grass, trees, sunlight and a river, the sounds and smells of nature, and freedom to wander over large expanses of territory.

In recent years, animal advocates have made significant strides in helping circus animals. Austria, Singapore, Sweden, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Peru, Israel, and Croatia have all banned the use of animals in circuses.

India has some of the most enlightened animal welfare laws of any country, and has also taken steps to protect circus animals. In 1998, India banned the use of several wild animals as “performing animals,” which means they cannot be used in circuses. Extending the ban to elephants has not yet happened, but is a goal that is in sight.

Rhesus macaques, living in freedom in Shimla Himachal Pradesh near the Jakhu temple.

The fight to protect wild animals from being used in Indian circuses began many years ago; it’s been a long road, and it has seemed that each step has been countered by those with a stake in the continued exploitation of animals.

“Amusement for the Uncivilized”

One of the earliest publications of the Animal Welfare Board of India was a booklet entitled, “Circuses – Amusement for the Uncivilized.”

In 1962, an Act of Parliament, The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960, created the Animal Welfare Board of India, a government organization unique to India that defends and protects animals.

Initially, Dr. Chinny Krishna (now Vice Chairman of the AWBI) and several others formed a team that worked as volunteers for the AWBI, led by Peter Hoffman, who served on the Board for many years as the Honorary Editor.  His assistant was Mr. Nachiappan, who, in the 1980’s, became the head of the Koviloor Math, a School for Vedantic Studies, and who passed away recently in his 90’s.

The ban on the use of some species of wild animals in circuses only came about twelve years ago, when the well-known Indian animal advocate, Mrs. Maneka Gandhi, as the Minister of Environment and Forests, got a law passed that banned five of the most abused animals in circuses: monkeys, bears, lions, tigers, and panthers. Sadly, it was not possible to include elephants. The reason for this is that many Hindu temples keep elephants; generally they are not well treated, but there was a concern that temples and their supporters, who have great influence, would block any rules that might hamper the ability of temples to possess elephants.

(In July, 2011, bulls were added as a sixth species banned from being used as performing animals.)

This leopard is free in the wild, in Bardia National Park, Nepal.

The circus industry did not give up though, even after the ban was passed.  A number of court cases ensued challenging the ruling, although the court decisions always upheld the ban.

The beginnings of the Indian circus

The beginnings of the Indian circus can be traced back to Maharastra, in 1900, however, nearly all the well-known circuses of India originated a few years later in Kerala.  These days, there are 23 major circuses in India, with many smaller traveling groups of performers.

Justice Kurup, from Kerala, handed down one of the landmark decisions leading to greater protection for circus animals. In 2006, his decision led to the formation of a high-level committee, to be chaired by Dr. Prodipto Ghosh, then Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

About ten others were on the committee, including Dr. Chinny Krishna and Mrs. Norma Alvarez, President of PFA Goa and an animal and environmental advocate.  The committee also included a number of representatives of the circus federation and other sympathizers with the circus industry.

Attempting to roll back progress

For three years, the committee met and discussed issues related to circus animals. The circus people, sensing that they were going to be up against a rising tide of public pressure, did offer to make a few concessions, including banning some of the cruelest practices, like forcing elephants to stand on their front feet or on a tiny two-foot stool.

Then, a few months before Dr. Ghosh was due to retire, the intensity of the talks picked up, and the circus representatives made a push to ease the regulations by relaxing the Performing Animal Rules.  They wanted every circus to be allowed to display one of each of the banned animals; they also sought a lessening of the restrictions on loud sounds and bright lights, and a modification in the cage size requirements, so that even smaller cages could be used.  All this would have rolled back the protections already won for circus animals, putting the animals back to where they started, in deplorable conditions.

The week before Dr. Ghosh was to retire, a final meeting was called, to settle on the revised recommendations.  The committee had just met the week before. It was a holiday, and yet committee members returned to Delhi despite personal inconvenience.  For Dr. Chinny Krishna, this meant a long flight from Chennai; for Norma Alvarez, it meant a change in plans since she’d made arrangements to spend her birthday with her family.

Holding on to progress made

The Member Secretary of the Central Zoo Authority was not able to attend, since the meeting had been called on short notice, nor was well-known wildlife conservationist, Bahar Dutt.  Without the pro-animal support of these two committee members, there was a clear danger that if a vote were taken, the revised, more relaxed rules might pass, and the circus animals would be pretty much back to square one.

With Dr. Ghosh chairing the meeting, as always; Norma Alvarez did a magnificent job of guiding the meeting in a certain direction. She asked each of those gathered to speak, at length and in detail, about all the discussions that had taken place over the past three years. Dr. Chinny Krishna delivered an eloquent statement about how the Cirque du Soleil of Canada and the Circus Oz of Australia, both immensely successful circuses, had no animal acts, noting that animal welfare advocates were really not in any way opposed to circuses, which, after all, employed thousands of people.  Their only objection was to the animal acts contained in some circuses, and the animal acts provided jobs for only very small numbers of people.

Everyone spoke at great length. Soon three hours had slipped away; it was late, and clearly there was no time for a vote. The Performing Animal Rules that offered protection for the circus animals stood unchanged. There was and is, of course, more work to do, but the hard-fought gains already made for the animals remained in place. The circus animals had won, thanks to the brilliant, “creative” steering of the meeting by Norma Alvarez.

Top photo: Courtesy of Wildlife SOS / Rajesh

Second photo: Courtesy of Wildlife SOS / Dr. Yaduraj, Senior Wildlife Vet for Wildlife SOS, with Chanchal

Third photo: Author: Aiwok / Wikimedia Commons / / “Rhesus Macaque with two babies in Shimla Himachal Pradesh near the Jakhu temple.”  These monkeys, fortunately, have their freedom and are not in a circus.

Fourth photo: Author: BhagyaMani / Wikimedia Commons / / This leopard is free in the wild, in Bardia National Park, Nepal.

To visit the website of the Animal Welfare Board of India, click here.

To visit the website of Wildlife SOS, click here.

4 thoughts on “India: The uphill fight to ban circuses from using wild animals

  1. This blog post is exactly what is needed to encourage people to be aware of what really goes on behind the scenes of a circus. Everyone should know the suffering of these animals in order to gain more support and stop animal cruelty .

  2. Thank you for the post. Raising public awareness of such issues makes a difference. I recently began my blog site to do the same. I am working to represent an animal welfare story, written often in prose, to inspire empathy and highlight the heros of animal protection. But of course, one cannot illuminate the heroes without exposing the villains. I dedicated a recent post to the urgent need to ban use of animals in circuses. Hope you’ll check it out: I am following you. Will look forward to reading your future posts. Many Blessings!!! ~Gerean, The Animal Spirits

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