Monday, 12 June 2017

Scottish Government’s proposed ban on wild animals in travelling circuses

The Scottish government has proposed banning wild animals in travelling circuses.  In the same vein as a proposed ban by the British government, they have said that they wish to ban wild animals in circuses based on ethical considerations although this premise has already been open to criticism by at least one academic ethicist.

In the case of a British ban, they chose to go down the ethical route because research by DEFRA in 2007 came to the conclusion that banning circuses with animals could not be undertaken on welfare grounds.  However, in December 2012, the British government decided to introduce legislation which involved the inspection and licensing of circuses with wild animals and any plans for a ban have now faulted.  Likewise, the Welsh assembly investigated a ban on wild animals in circuses.  However, it seems likely that the Welsh assembly will follow the British example of introducing an inspection and licensing scheme.

I have made clear my personal feelings that I would prefer regulation of animals in circuses which a number of countries have undertaken.  Some backgrounds on my position can be found on the blog linked below.

Scottish Government’s proposed ban on wild animals in travelling circuses

A submission by John Dineley, BA.Hons


I have been involved in the care of animals for over 40 years in zoos and wildlife parks both in the United Kingdom and Europe and I am currently a zoological consultant and a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London. I do not support a ban on any animals in circuses as from the scientific evidence (and from personal observation). This seems both unnecessary and unfair to responsible circuses that do take their welfare obligations towards their animals seriously. 

Ethical Position

The Scottish government has adopted the same position as the British government as regards to a ban of wild animals in circuses.  The British government has clearly stated that it cannot ban wild animals in circuses on welfare grounds and therefore feels compelled to purse a ban on ethical grounds. 

I believe it is impossible to divorce the issues of animal welfare from that of ethics, as they are inextricably linked.  The science of animal welfare tells us that animals may (or may not) be suffering (Stamp-Dawkins, 2012). It is this information that leads us to try and make an ethical judgement. Therefore, no ethical consideration can be applied until the first questions have been answered using the scientific method. We can make no assumptions about what animals are feeling without actually testing this hypothesis for which we use science. If a government says that it can-not ban animals in circuses on welfare grounds, this statement (by its very nature) makes it impossible to make any kind of ethical judgement.

Moreover, it could be reasonably argued that those animal rights groups (that oppose animals in circuses) are behaving unethically because they have made claims that are misleading or are not supported by the actual research regarding the welfare of the animals concerned.  It also could be said, from an ethical position, that they are engaging in “moral judgement” and demanding something stops because of their particular ideological position. 

Research in Circus Animal Welfare

The statement by the Scottish government that there is a lack of scientific data on the welfare requirements of wild animals within the travelling circus environment is incorrect.  It does exist and it should be noted that there is also considerable research on the welfare of animals in zoological collections and much of this can also be applied to animals in circuses.

Perhaps the most extensive empirical research undertaken on animals in circuses in the United Kingdom was undertaken by Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington and published in 1990 with the financial support of the RSPCA and The Universities Federation of Animal Welfare (UFAW).

Dr Kiley-Worthington spent some 18 months studying all aspects of animals in circuses, including making detailed quantitative recordings of their behaviour for over 3000 animal hours. Her conclusions were that circuses are, by their nature, not cruel and that any deficits in the husbandry of the animals within these environments could be addressed without the need of banning such enterprises.

Further, whilst she was undertaking her research, Dr Kiley-Worthington spent a number of months looking at the issue of ethics relating animals in circuses with academic colleagues at the Department of Philosophy at Colorado State University.

She states:

“...there is no reason why circus training, any more than any other animal training, of its nature, causes suffering and distress to the animals or should be considered ethically unacceptable...”

Other empirical research has been undertaken by other academics. 

In the United States Dr Ted Friend, Professor of Animal Science at Texas A&M University at College Station, Texas has undertaken numerous studies on elephants and big cats within American circuses (publications cited in the reference section). 

“...My research has clearly indicated that circuses are not inherently detrimental to the welfare of elephants. My experience with circuses in North America concurs with the conclusions of Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s 1990 study of elephants in British circuses. To quote her conclusion:

“The welfare of the animals in British circuses, as judged by physical and psychological criteria, is not as a rule inferior to that of other animal husbandry systems such as in zoos, private stables and kennels...It is irrational to take a stand against circuses on grounds that the animals in circuses necessarily suffer, unless they are to take the same stand against zoos, stables, racehorses, kennels, pets and all other animal-keeping systems.” ...”

In Germany, Dr Immanuel Birmelin undertook research into stress levels in circus animals such as elephants (Birmelin, 2011), African lions (Birmelin, Albonetti and Bammert, 2012) and tigers (Birmelin, 2012). 

He looked at the analysis of salivary cortisol in these animals when statically housed and prior to and after being transported. The results showed no statistical difference, suggesting the animals were not exhibiting physiological signs of stress. 

Animal Training

In its justification for the ban, the government postulates that wild animals are genetically and behaviourally hardwired to express their natural and wild behaviour and this somehow prohibits the training of these animals and their public display.

This particular position is erroneous on many levels.  An animal’s behaviour is determined by its genes and environment; animals constantly learn from their environment and if they have not the ability to adapt they would not survive.  This is the driving force of the evolutionary theory.  It is interesting to note that those who oppose animals in both circuses and zoos use the argument that these are sentient beings many of whom have complex social lives.  If one accepts this statement it in itself would suggest that the concept of them being behaviourally immutable would hark back to the times of Rene Descartes and his consideration that animals were simply automata.  This particular theory has been dismissed and it is well-known that animals have the capability of learning and adapting to their environment even in the short term let alone over evolutionary time.

A point that was emphasised by Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington is humans working with animals in a circus situation is a relationship and not as some would portray it a master and servant situation.  Kiley-Worthington tends to use the analogy of an employee and employer.  She also makes the point that animals being trained enriches their lives and it has long been considered that animal training in itself enhances the animal’s lives.  This goes back to the pioneering research by the German zoo biologist and zoo director Heiney Hediger in his publications Psychology and Behaviour of Animals in Zoos and Circuses (1959) and Man and Animal in Zoo (1970).

It may be of interest to the committee that the training of wild animals in zoos has become commonplace not just for public demonstrations but also to enhance the health and welfare of the majority of animals.  It now becomes a policy that animals are trained to be handled for such things as transportation to other facilities and routine health examinations either by keeping staff or a veterinarian.  The techniques used in these situations are identical to that used by a contemporary and professional circus or zoo animal trainer and based on the codification of learning behaviour (operant conditioning) researched by the psychologist B. F. Skinner.

Definition of a wild animal

One of the underlying problems with such definitions is that there are many animals that would be considered wild animals that are currently being utilised in farming such as reindeer, ostrich, rhea and water buffalo. 

We can logically take this one step further with Camelids, such as llama and alpaca (which are not indigenous to the United Kingdom), which are now being considered domestic animals in the UK.  Moreover, it should be noted that that the Arabian camel (Camelus dromedarius) and the Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) are both totally domesticated in the Middle East and Asia with neither species now existing in the wild.  In should be noted that there is a wild form of the Bactrian camel but this is a sub-species (Camelus ferus) and different from the domestic form we see in circuses.

Further, the Scottish government suggests there is a huge difference between wild animal behaviour and that of domesticated animals.  I would question that as a false dichotomy.  I would also question the speculation that domestication necessarily takes many years (some might suggest hundreds of years) to develop. 

One of the classic examples that overturn this dogma is the longitudinal research of the Soviet scientist Dmitri Belyayev which began in the 1950s.  This scientist demonstrated that breeding the wild red fox (Vulpes vulpes) over even relatively short periods of time (generations) resulted in animals that were fundamentally as tame as a domestic dog.  This research has also been replicated in wild mink in research studies in Denmark.

Interestingly, the above-cited research specifically bred animals for the trait of tameness.  In research presented at the Society for Experimental Biology in 2016, Dr Federico Becerra showed that you can in fact breed for traits not only for tameness but also aggression.  Using research on laboratory rats (which are considered domesticated animals) this researcher was actually able to breed animals that were selected to be more aggressive so it shows that these kinds of research projects can work in both directions. 

Moreover, another research in 2015 by Manuel Berdoy (a zoologist at Oxford University) demonstrated that domesticated rats were quite capable of rapidly adjusting back to living in the wild environment.

Dr Martha Kiley Worthington made the very interesting point that the distinction between wild and domesticated animals can be blurred.  Domesticated animals, for example, retain and often display many of the traits that are seen in their wild ancestors.  These behaviours have not been removed via the domestication process. 

Most circus and zoo animals have been bred for generations in captive care and therefore to maintain they are truly wild are misleading.  Particularly in the case of circus animals because these have been bred within a circus environment and animal trainers would try and breed from animals that are the most cooperative and show the signs of being comfortable around humans.

Finally, I must voice my concern at what I feel is the unequal (and some would say unethical) treatment of those who operate circuses with animals.  If this legislation precedes it would mean that other business operators (who do not fall within the narrow confines of the term “travelling circus”) would be able to operate a business more or less identical in format.  We would have the peculiar situation of an operator of a troupe of performing camels being able to present these animals for rides at a country fair but they will be prohibited within a circus. 


Birmelin, I. (2011) The use of salivary cortisol to assess the welfare of elephants. International Elephant and Rhino Conservation and Research Symposium. The Rotterdam Zoo

Birmelin, I, Tessy Albonetti, T. Bammert, W.J. (2013) Can lions adapt to the conditions of zoo and circus? (Konnen sich Lowen an die Haltungsbedingungen von Zoo und Zirkus anpassen?) Office Veterinary Service and Food Control Vol 20.

Birmelin, I  (2012) Investigations on the employment and transport of the circus.
German Society For Zoo Animals, Wild Animals And Exotic Medicine Conference. Rostock: Germany

Dineley, J.D. (1997) Does the Carrot Need the Stick? Are aversive stimuli an obligatory component in the training and maintaining of behaviours in animals? Dissertation in support of a BA.Hons degree in psychology with biology. University of Luton.

Friend, T. H. and Bushong, D. (1996). Abstract. Stereotypic behavior in circus elephants and the effect of "anticipation" of feeding, watering and performing. Proceedings of the 30th International Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology 14-17 August 1996, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Friend, T. H. (1999). Behavior of picketed circus elephants.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 62:73-88.

Friend, T. H. and M. L. Parker. (1999). The effect of penning versus picketing on stereotypic behavior of circus elephants. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 64:213-225.

Gruber, T. M., T. H. Friend, J. M. Gardner, J. M. Packard, B. Beaver, and D. Bushong. (2000). Variation in stereotypic behavior related to restraint in circus elephants. Zoo Biology 19:209-221.

Hediger, H. (1959). Psychology of animal in zoos and circuses. London: Butterworth

Hediger, H. (1970). Man and animal in the zoo: Zoo biology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Kiley-Worthington, M. (1990). Animals in circuses and zoos: Chiron's world? Pitsea: Little Eco Farms Publishing.

Krawczel, P.D., T.H. Friend and A. Windom. (2006). Stereotypic behavior of circus tigers: Effects of performance. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 95:189-198.

Nevill, C. H. and T. H. Friend. (2003). The behavior of circus tigers during transport. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 82:329-337.

Nevill, C. H., T. H. Friend and M. J. Toscano. (2004). Survey of transport environments of circus tiger (Panthera Tigris) acts. Journal of the Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 35:167-174.

Nevill, C. H. and T. H. Friend. (2006). A preliminary study on the effects of limited access to an exercise pen on stereotypic pacing in circus tigers. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.101:355-361.

Skinner, B.F. (1938). The Behavior of organisms. New York: Appleton-Century.

Stamp-Dawkins, M. (2012) Why Animal Matter: Animal Consciousness, Animal Welfare and Human Well-Being.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Toscano, M. J., T. H. Friend and C. H. Nevill. (2001) Environmental conditions and body temperature of circus elephants transported during relatively high and low temperature conditions.  Journal of the Elephant Managers Association 12:115-149

Williams, J. L. and T. H. Friend. (2003). Behavior of circus elephants during transport. Journal of the Elephant Managers Association 14:8-11.