Independence Minutiae: Circuses & Zoos

(Title Image: The Telegraph)

It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but my next look at minor issues relating to Welsh independence is one that’s actually been in the news fairly recently: the use of wild or endangered animals in performance acts, particularly circuses.

I’ve decided to look at zoos as well (as keeping animals in captivity is sometimes controversial too) to kill two birds with one stone (excuse the pun).

Why the controversy?

Wild animals used to be tamed to perform through threats and violence – they were whipped or beaten. That’s not necessarily true anymore, with tamers using things like conditioning, positive reinforcement and repetition instead. Either way the goal is to make the trainer dominant.

Now, I’m not going to deny that training a giant cat – that can crush your head in its jaws with a similar pressure to a hydraulic vice – to take some meat out of your mouth is impressive and takes great skill and courage. The questions are: What’s the point? What’s the animal getting out of it?

Zoos and safari parks are generally less controversial as the focus is on education, animal science and conservation – it’s the only chance most people get to see wild animals up close and the animals aren’t coerced into performing tricks.

There were two “rights of passage” for any schoolkid growing up in south Wales during the 1980s and early 90s – going to St Fagans for the first of what will inevitably be umpteen visits, the other being the famous Penscynor Wildlife Park in Neath.

The latter has long closed. Although they housed a large number of chimps – I remember they had penguins too – they were kept in bare concrete enclosures which, even at the time, were pretty grim conditions considering the sheer number of animals kept there. Of course, the animals weren’t there to“perform” but at least one chimp died by drowning in the moat (chimps are bad swimmers).

Nevertheless, you’ve got to ask whether it’s right that endangered animals in particular are kept in captivity so far away from their natural environment in what often seem to be undersized pens. I don’t think there’s any doubt that they’re properly looked after in zoos though.

On the other side, part of the reason some species are endangered in the first place is because they’re not protected in their natural habitat from poachers or other threats etc. So keeping them in zoos keeps them safe and prevents their species spinning towards extinction as they can be bred in captivity – like pandas.

Nobody seems to have a problem with aquariums unless they mistreat large sea-going mammals like dolphins and whales, who are perhaps just as likely to be taught tricks to amuse visitors as lions and elephants in a circus.

The Current Situation

Wales currently has three zoos: the Welsh Mountain Zoo in Colwyn Bay, as well as Folly Farm and Manor Wildlife Park/Anna’s Zoo (both in Pembrokeshire). There are also a number of wildlife sanctuaries/smaller wildlife parks (like Plantasia in Swansea) in addition to aquariums in Rhyl and Anglesey.

There are no safari parks, though I understand there are provisional plants to build a National Aquarium in Swansea as part of the redevelopment of the Civic Centre.

As for the legislative and policy controls, it’s a mix of devolved powers, non-devolved powers and European directives.

  • Wales: Animal welfare, as a general competence, is devolved to Wales – but it’s mainly with agriculture and local conservation in mind. Within the draft Wales Bill, most areas relating to animals are not reserved with the exception of hunting with dogs (Life, Ethics & Independence X: Hunting) and animal experimentation (Life, Ethics & Independence V: Animal Rights & Animal Testing). However, there’s no mention of zoos or circus animals – so you’ve got to presume those powers will be/are devolved.
  • EnglandandWales: Zoos are regulated via the Zoos Licensing Act 1981. The Welsh Government has the responsibility for enforcing the Act, but local authorities are the ones who actually issue licences to zoos. It stipulates that zoos must be dedicated to research, conservation and must provide animals with “an environment well adapted to meet the physical, psychological and social needs of the species to which it belongs”.
  • European Union: Directive 1999/22/EC relating to the keeping of wild animals in zoos. It largely applies the same measures as the Zoo Licensing Act but across all EU member states, so it doesn’t really affect Wales. It makes licensing zoos mandatory. Extra regulations were applied in EnglandandWales in 2002.

Despite these regulations and rules governing zoos, there are, AFAIK, currently no rules or laws specifically governing the use of wild animals in circuses/performances. General animal welfare rules still apply and wild animals need to be licenced. Therefore, there’s nothing stopping the use of wild or endangered animals in performance acts, like circuses.

Discussion over this in Wales was prompted by a touring lion and tiger show last year – reportedly one of the last one’s left. They cancelled performances in Neath and Porthcawl after campaigners called for a public boycott following concerns about the treatment of the animals after a lion was caught on video swiping at a trainer’s head.

What can be done?

As I’ve said before, I don’t believe animals have inherent rights, but they should be treated with dignity and, if in human captivity, subject to minimum standards of treatment. Lions simply shouldn’t be dancing on a stool or jumping through hoops full-stop.

The Welsh Government have discussed the possibility of introducing legislation on circus animals, while several parties included a proposal for a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses in their 2016 manifestos. There’s a good chance a Bill will be introduced in the Fifth Assembly if there’s cross-party agreement – whether by the government or a backbencher.

The Zoo Licensing Act itself seems fit for purpose, though it could be updated in a post-independence environment to provide greater/more specific protection to species classified as endangered or critically endangered by the International Union of Conservation in Nature (IUCN).

It’s worth also considering what the zoos/wildlife parks of the future might look like. With improvements in holographic technology, it’s perhaps not at all fanciful that performing animals might be replaced by holographic recreations which can perform all the tricks you want without causing any harm – there’s already one in Dubai.

Of course, wild animals can’t be left solely to exist as holograms….