One of the hot topics of today, but not one that is entirely new, is the breeding and use of animals in circuses. The public would have surely seen several television appearances, from press conferences to debates on evening TV. Information also appears in the press. Unfortunately, these have often been very emotive, with the minimum use of an analytical approach. At the point where the issue should be substantively argued and a solid and fair discussion held, other issues are raised, and vicarious questions sought (from dog breeding to ritual slaughter or falconry). Therefore, in the next few paragraphs, I will try to provide a broader answer to some of these secondary references, but I will also return to the issue of the breeding and use of animals in circuses at the end of my communication.
The coexistence of man and animals has a long tradition. Mutual relations have gradually evolved, and it is no different today. In historical times, man himself lived in groups and his life did not differ much from the natural behavior of animals also organized based on instincts. As a successful animal species, man gradually subjugated the other animals to varying degrees of dependence.
Gradually, several species of originally wild animals became farm animals (for example, poultry, cattle, pigs, sheep and others). Man has learned to breed these species of animals, i.e. to organize their lives as much as possible - from nutrition, through controlled reproduction, to major interventions and altering their genotype and phenotype. At the same time, more and more attention is focused on observing ethical principles. From merely focusing on the effectiveness and economic aspects of intensive farming, human society is now required to respect animal welfare, even though it is clear that these animals are intended for slaughter (i.e. to be killed) and subsequent use in the food industry and elsewhere. Similarly, horses were used to transport cargo and as a form of transport of people, especially hunters and fighters. The massive involvement of horses in the armed forces and the need to maintain this “means of transport and, if necessary, food for soldiers” were also behind the creation of organized health care for this strategic species and the emergence of the first veterinary schools. Today, horses are perceived as pets, and much attention is paid to their well-being and to fulfilling their natural requirements. Several regulations and restrictions have been observed in racing, ranging from severe punishment for doping to modifying the conditions of difficult horse races.
The breeding of laboratory animals has also undergone a huge development. Detailed methods for breeding and the possibilities of genetic modification of small rodents in particular have been developed for the purposes of health care research. Animal welfare is perceived very strongly here as well. Standards have been created for breeding conditions and experiments. Professional training of high school staff and scientists who organize work with laboratory (experimental) animals is required. Strong emphasis is placed on limiting or even avoiding the use of certain groups - such as dogs or monkeys.
Similarly, certain species of domestic animals kept for hunting, protection of property, or eradication of other animals (e.g. rodents) have become a beneficial partner to humans. Here, too, the originally free relationship has changed into a strong dependency. Under conditions that can only be described as exaggerated care for animals, there are now breeds of cats and dogs, which are fundamentally different from the original model and whose chances of survival in the wild and without consistent human assistance would probably be very small. However, since such breeds of cats and dogs still meet the demand of a sufficiently large part of the human population, they are still bred to a large extent. Here, too, the development of the relationship is ongoing, and the breeding of extreme forms is now banned in several EU countries. In the Czech Republic, the issue of the commercial breeding of cats and dogs is now addressed quite seriously.
People also began to show interest in the possibility of targeted regulation and use of wild animals from their surroundings (deer, hares, wild bores, pheasants). Here too, animal welfare issues are topical and many traditional hunting practices are no longer permissible.
However, human interest was not only focused on the breeding and pragmatic economic use of animals. Gradually, interest was also on exotic species (from a European perspective) and the first collections of animals caught in the wild for the enjoyment and entertainment of man were made. This led not only to the creation of zoos, but also of circuses. Breeding of less space-demanding species of exotic animals led to the breeding of birds, reptiles, amphibians, aquarium fish and other groups of animals, including invertebrates, directly in the people’s homes.
Let us stay in Europe and look at the relationship between humans and animals today. Many traditional forms of animal breeding and use have died out. Even if certain groups of people, who tend to refer to tradition, still disagree and try to resist, certain habits such as bullfighting, fox hunting, original forms of burrowing, and breeding of beasts as fur animals are generally unacceptable today. Wild animals in nature are protected and their domestic breeding for entertainment or pleasure is contrary to the applicable laws. To a certain extent, and with a slowness that is hard to understand, restrictions and a possible total ban on imports of exotic animals obtained in the wild for private farming purposes are gradually being applied.
There is no doubt that circuses have also played a historical role and have provided people in Europe over the past few centuries with a unique form of entertainment and the opportunity to meet exotic wildlife. However, this is already a thing of the past. Similarly, it is not possible to compare the past and present educational function of mobile puppet theaters. If people voluntarily choose a difficult job in a modern circus as their profession, there is no reason and we have no right to prevent them. Freedom to choose a profession is one of the attributes of life in a democratic society. However, the use of animals for entertainment, especially wild animal species, is beyond the culture and knowledge of human society in contemporary Europe. The performances of animals in circuses largely distorts people’s perceptions of how such animals behave. In the wild, animals have to perform much more demanding physical tasks, as can be seen in many good-quality natural history documentaries.
It is not only the task of employees and owners of circuses, but also the whole of society, to find solutions to the current unsustainable situation. Several solutions can be applied immediately, for example by completely stopping the reproduction of animals in circuses and thereby ending the vicious circle of the existence of wild species that are born into unnatural conditions and are often forced to live there for the whole of their lives. The next step is to create conditions for the subsequent life of circus animals, without unnatural transportation and performances. In several European countries, similar activities have already been banned. The public and professional public in the Czech Republic have also expressed their negative attitude towards the existence of mobile circuses with animals.
These practical questions should be answered through a discussion, which should facilitate efforts to mutually solve the delicate issue of the current existence of animals in circuses. Solutions will not be easy or cheap. However, European society in the third millennium is able to manage this task.
Prof. MVDr. Zdeněk Knotek, CSc. Dipl. ECZM (Herpetological Medicine and Surgery), President of the Czech Association of Veterinary Surgeons of Wild Animals and Zoo Animals.