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Circus Oz starts 2018 dialling back the years (by 40 years)

Some people start their New Year fighting back tears, drunk-dialling their exes to beg for one more chance. Others declare impossible promises of behavioural change. And some start their year with Facebook posts from their official company page, as the artistic of Circus Oz, Rob Tannion did. He made his New Year’s declaration in support of the use of domestic and exotic animals in circus acts.

This is despite the fact that Circus Oz has always marketed itself as animal free. The company website says it has “an ethos of tolerance, diversity and human kindness… issues associated with social justice and a good time for all”.

Recently, the company has been admirably described in various media as ‘The Cruelty Free Circus’ as publicity ramped up for the opening of its new show Model Citizen opened at the Sydney Festival last night, coinciding with the company’s 40 year anniversary.

You might think a company now widely regarded as ‘Cruelty Free’ would be happy to own the label.

However, Tannion posted on his Facebook last week:

I would like to clearly articulate that Circus Oz supports all sectors of our circus industry. Over the 40 years of Circus Oz we have chosen to celebrate the spirit of humanity and the potential of the human body to entertain our audiences. We are one of the many diverse forms of circus that exists today, some of which incorporate animals into their shows. All circus is equally vital and valid, and ultimately the use of animals on stage comes down to the artistic choice of each company.

Sadly some mainstream films and media choose to focus on the negative representation of some elements of past practices with regards to animal care, treatment and welfare – without taking the time to look into animal care practices currently employed. There are extremely high ethical codes of care and practice endorsed by this sector of Australian circus.

Too often we see sensationalised headlines when talking about circus and animals, which may carry damaging, negative assumptions and repercussions. Although no longer reflective of current practices, these old and tired assumptions are easy to keep reinforcing. These are not views supported by Circus Oz.

The current diversity of contemporary circus owes so much to our classical, traveling and family run circus. Much of what we do today technically and artistically has been developed, tried and tested beneath their tent canvasses.

Let’s start talking about circus as a genre and an art form in the 21st century, and not keep drawing on tired assumptions of the past. At the heart of everything, we are all circus.

In response, hundreds of comments have been posted on the Circus Oz Facebook page. There has been a wave of responses on both social and traditional media varying in support or protest about the use of animals in live performances. Audience members, animal rights activists, keyboard warriors, circus workers have all spoken up.

Tannion, nor other members of his staff – aside from their publicist – were available to comment for this article, but Mike Finch, the previous Circus Oz artistic director of 17 years standing, said he agreed with Tannion’s position.

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Finch told me the reasons he chose not to include animals in performances during his own direction of the company were threefold. “Aesthetic, technical, and financial…technically I didn’t have animal skills, nor did I (or anyone I knew well) have any circus animals. We simply weren’t equipped with the skills or knowledge.”

Still you might think a company now widely regarded as ‘Cruelty Free’ would be happy to own the label. Why are we – or Circus Oz – having this debate in 2018?

The positioning of Circus Oz as ‘The Cruelty Free Circus’ began in mid-2017 when a western Sydney touring venue for a Circus Oz production used the phrase in its marketing. It was not approved by Circus Oz staff or its publicists but the phrase filtered into the mainstream media. This public labelling apparently led members of the country’s doing-it-tough animal circuses to contact Circus Oz, concerned about the insinuation that their circuses were inherently cruel.

As this groundswell of concern about the use of animals grows, animal circuses continue to argue that circus animals are kept in better condition than many pets.

About 50 local councils in Australia have banned animal circuses in recent years (although these regulations usually apply only to council land). A year ago, the famous Ringling Bros and Barnum Circus in the US closed after 146 years, partly due to plummeting ticket sales after the removal of elephants from their shows. The debate about using animals for entertainment has also gained momentum since the release of the Hollywood biopic on circus impresario PT Barnum, The Greatest Showman, (reviewed here by Luke Buckmaster). Last Friday, a protest (pictured above) was held outside Stardust Circus on the NSW central coast. Meanwhile, in New South Wales the Animal Justice Party, with one member in the State Legislative Council, is proposing a bill this year to completely ban animal circuses across the state state, to amend what party members describe as the “limited reach” of the Exhibited Animals Protection Act of 1986.

At the same time, the phrase ‘cruelty free’ has increasingly been used to describe animal free products as awareness of animal rights has become more widespread. Even mass production slaughterhouses typically claim their killing is “humane”.

As this groundswell of concern about the use of animals grows, animal circuses continue to argue that circus animals are kept in better condition than many pets.

Stardust Circus ringmaster, Adam St James, has previously said that its lions have been bred in human care for 23 generations — over 100 years — and even claims that the animals wouldn’t breed if they were mistreated. Stardust is one of the last two remaining Australian circuses (the other is Lennon Bros.) using animals, currently holding horses, dogs, camels, goats, monkeys and African lions in captivity.

Another popular argument in defence of animal circuses is tradition and the preservation of the older circus cultures. The performing arts has unshackled itself from African-American minstrelry, fights to the death, and human zoos and freak shows. Tradition or ‘artistic choice’ as Tannion puts it is no argument for exploitation of humans or animals.

“Tradition is a very weak justification for something which is, arguably, morally problematic,” Gemma Lucy Smart, an ethicist at University of Sydney, tells me. She adds that she’d thought Circus Oz “was one of the organisations that defended the need for the industry to change, and saw the use of animals for entertainment as rightfully on its way to becoming obsolete.”

I was told by those working in the animal circus industry, with enthusiasm, that the Stardust trainer plays with their lions for a “whole hour a day,” as if this might compare to a life in an open sanctuary or a limited release.  I was also told they enjoyed access to an air conditioned trailer, as though this should be read as anything more than asset protection for a touring circus.

From Tannion’s statement, it seems as though human kindness is limited to humans, and that diversity and tolerance has extended to tolerating cruelty to animals.

Circus Oz is the only circus company with Australia Council Major Performing Arts status, and this has not grown from a conventional circus tradition. Its beginnings in Melbourne in 1978 sprang from the new wave of theatre at the Pram Factory, La Mama Theatre and Hoopla! in the ‘60s and ’70s. It has a much stronger connection to character comedy, broad burlesque and social satire than traditional circus.

Tannion’s defence of animal circuses was also justified by his argument that there are “extremely high ethical codes of care and practice” that cover the use of animals in circuses in Australia. However, there is no national code, and states’ codes are managed and dictated by the industry, which is invested in the continued use of animals. Furthermore, the RSPCA notes the “inherent welfare problems of repeated transport, confinement, and the inability to meet social, behavioural and physiological needs” and explicitly “opposes the use of exotic animals in circuses.”

The Animal Justice Party sees the issues rather differently too. Its circus campaigns co-ordinator, Rebecca See says that “circus animals are denied the opportunity to roam freely, form complex social groups, and manage their surroundings,” and AJP NSW convenor Lisa Ryan adds: “Cruelty involves more than the physical – it also includes the denial of their emotional and psychological needs, leading to suffering where their uniqueness and individuality is not met”.

Internationally, the most referenced bureaucratic report is the British government’s Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses, which holds no clear position on the lot of exotic animals in circuses. It concludes that any policy change would be “an entirely political decision.” But of course – policy change is political. That’s the point.

Despite the public outcry since Tannion’s statement, no-one from Circus Oz’s management and board have responded, other than the artistic director Tannion who told The Age that he was “really hoping we [as an industry] can have a dialogue.” And even though he publicly supports the use of animals in circuses, Tannion says Circus Oz is taking a “neutral” stance. “It’s not our place to make a moral ethical judgment on those circuses,” he said.

Mike Finch echoed this statement, telling me: “Circus Oz, at its best, is a community that can absorb diversity and difference of all kinds, and combine those differences (gender, age, skill, sensibility, intention, opinions, Aesthetic and collaborative drive) and create something that is more than the sum of the parts”.

But from Tannion’s statements, it seems as though human kindness is limited to humans, and that diversity and tolerance has extended to tolerating cruelty to animals.

Tannion concluded his initial statement with a call to “start talking about circus as a genre and an art form in the 21st century, and not keep drawing on tired assumptions of the past.” The irony is staggering.

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9 responses to “Circus Oz starts 2018 dialling back the years (by 40 years)

  1. All of us have seen the poor state circus animals look to be in, from depression to poor physical health. It is ridiculously spruke otherwise. This advertorial will not help circus Oz , move on and count your blessings that you are not one of those animals in a cage.

  2. i’m shocked at how behind Australia is on this! Circus Oz needs to lift its game, if you see an animal of any kind performing on any stage, i’d be right to assume that it has suffered in some form. if it is exotic, I know that it has suffered. We are behind a lot of war-torn, less developed/privileged and economically suffering countries when it comes to banning both exotic and domestic animals in circuses!

  3. I’m pleased to see a number of comments calling out this article for the startlingly simplistic view the author takes of the Circus Oz’s position. Circus Oz has always held the view that the circus industry; which is a community that has been marginalised, stereotyped, and deliberately misunderstood for generations – needs to be composed of companies and individuals that respect each other’s freedom of choice around artistic decisions, including those around the use of animals. The current diatribe against Circus Oz, who have essentially stated the same position that they’ve always held, fall into a familiar pattern used by animal rights proponents of finding vulnerable, symbolic issues which they can attack without fear of finding much debate. It’s easy to stir up hatred against a small family business when you have a determinedly different view from them. Is picketing that family business appropriate? How would you like to see protestors outside your local butcher shaming people for eating meat, which arguably far more morally questionable and widespread by the standards of these activists than two (thats right – TWO) circuses that have toured and entertained regional Australia for generations. On a similar note of choosing vulnerable targets, I note that the author mentions the RSPCA. Interestingly on the RSPCA’s website I found the side note that their organisation does not formally promote or advocate for veganism OR vegeterianism, rather choosing to work with suppliers of farm animals to promote better standards for animals which are literally raised to be killed and eaten. If that isn’t the grossest kind of hypocrisy and selective thinking then call me a circus monkey.

  4. ‘It is not your right- based on your traditions, your customs and your habits
    to deny animals their freedom so that you can enslave them, harm them,
    and kill them. This is not what rights are about. That’s injustice.
    There is no counter-argument to veganism.
    Accept it.
    Apologise for the way you have been living.
    Make amends and move forward ‘.

  5. A disappointing and very opinionated piece of writing from someone who seems to believe in a morally black and white world. I personally don’t go to see circuses with animals or zoos and I’m not a fan of horse racing but these issues are much more complex than this writer has conveyed.

  6. I don’t believe it is Circus Oz’s proclaimed mission to close down other circuses, it wishes only (by my understanding of the original sentence,) to make it clear that it is not participating in the anti animal campaign, – why should it? – it doesn’t have animals so for it there is no issue.
    Should other people have the right to demand it must join them in this issue? – No, it is none of those other people’s business what Circus Oz does, nor should it ever be.
    Next there will be supporters of ‘Amnesty International’ (a worthy organisation imho), Claiming Circus Oz should be providing free performances because they don’t like cruelty, – Small artistic organisations have enough to do just surviving, not taking on other folks missions, however worthy, – we each have our own mission, but no right to insist everyone has our mission, – even if it does somehow impact others, eg. I might believe that the human race is severely threatened by Global Warming, (I do actually) but until enough people are affected by it enough to do something about it, I can’t make them.

  7. Seriously, Daily Review? An article on circus animals that references the Australian Justice Party as some sort of credible authority? I wouldn’t take much convincing that wild (as opposed to domesticated) animals should not be in circuses, but this article doesn’t convince me at all.

  8. Close the zoos and make it illegal for anyone to own an animal too. Should we tolerate people throwing a stick for a dog to fetch? Should we stop people dressing up their animals in the privacy of their own homes? Should we close all the regional Agricultural Shows that encourage owners to put their animal on show? Should we put an end to exploiting the senses of animals in the pursuit of catching criminals?
    People can be very selective at who and what they attack these days.

  9. Unless Tannion has taken it upon himself to personally inspect each and every circus that uses animals, how can he say, “Although no longer reflective of current practices, these old and tired assumptions are easy to keep reinforcing.”

    “It’s not our place to make a moral ethical judgment on those circuses,” he said. Funny, I thought that’s exactly what one does before one decides to support something.

    There’s not a merger in the wings is there?

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