Animals who suffer for our art: Arts Council Ireland €980,000 funding of animal circuses

Of the four circuses that continue to use animals in Ireland, three of them have received ongoing funding from the Arts Council Ireland (ACI). The ACI is a Government agency whose main source of funding is the Irish Exchequer. Put simply, this means that public money is being used year- on-year to support the continued use of animals, including tigers, lions, alligators and seals, in circuses.

Since 2006, there has been a decline in the amount of funding given to animal circuses but they continue to receive state support from the ACI, despite increasing expert and public opposition to the use of animals in circuses.

In total, almost €1,000,000 has been granted to circuses that use animals since 2006, which represents over 50% of all Arts Council funding for circuses (all-human and animal) overall.

Welfare groups’ opposition ignored as ACI invites circus industry to write its own rules

The ACI decided to “establish a policy framework for animal welfare” in September 2007. Whether this was in response to Freedom for Animals’ 2006 report on circuses in Ireland, the charity’s criticism of the funding by the ACI or protests by Freedom for Animals’ campaign partners, the Alliance for Animal Rights, outside the ACI’s offices in March 2007 is not known.

In 2009, the ACI published its ‘Framework for the Welfare of Animals Presented in the Arts’ (Arts Council Ireland 2009), setting out standards that must be met in order to be eligible for ACI funding. The scope of the document covers not only circuses but other productions involving animals.

The Framework document was guided by a Working Party including officials from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In addition, three individuals are listed as having “reviewed the Framework in draft form and improved it with their ideas, observations and input”:

  • Dr Thomas Althaus: Zoologist/Ethologist, Switzerland
  • Dr Jim Collins: Zoologist/Ecology and Conservation Biologist, United Kingdom
  • Dr Christine Lendl, CertVA: Certified Veterinarian for Zoo and other Captive Wildlife, Germany

Interestingly, Dr Thomas Althaus is associated with the Swiss Circus Knie, in particular explaining to audiences how animals are trained at different venues the circus performs at (see: Knie 2012; Der Bund 2011).

Dr Jim Collins appears to have no specialist involvement with animal use in circus performances but he is well known within the exotic pet trade. As General Secretary of the National Association of Private Animal Keepers, Co-ordinator of the Sustainable Users Network and Livestock Consultant to the Pet Care Trust, his work has involved actively promoting and defending the private keeping of wild animals and opposing the permanent ban on importing live birds into the European Union (Dyrehold I Fokus 2006; Pet Care Trust 2005).

Dr Christine Lendl is a vet with specialisation in the treatment of exotic animals in zoos and circuses (Tierärztliche Klinik undated). She is also listed on the website of Germany’s Circus Krone as a member of their veterinary staff (Circus Krone undated). Krone describes itself as ‘Europe’s largest circus’ and includes elephants, lions and tigers in its shows.

Laura van der Meer, credited as ‘International Environmental Resources, sprl, Brussels, Belgium, is listed as a consultant for the policy. What isn’t mentioned is that Ms van der Meer is also the Brussels Representative of the European Circus Association and Executive Director of the Fédération Mondiale du Cirque; both organisations that actively lobby across Europe against restrictions on using animals in circuses.

Furthermore, Ms van der Meer’s role appears to have been far more than just a consultant. Correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Animal Rights Alliance (NARA) in Dublin reveals that in 2007 the Arts Council Ireland’s Director asked van der Meer to submit a proposal for the ACI’s Animal Policy and the contract between the two required the consultant to also “form and lead a working group”.

Freedom for Animals questioned the fact the consultees to the framework all appeared to have a very heavily weighted interest in perpetuating the use of animals in circuses and asked if any other individuals or groups had been approached to offer their input.

The ACI’s Head of Theatre and Circus told Freedom for Animals in July 2012: “Both the ISPCA and DSPCA [Dublin SPCA] were offered sight of, and an opportunity to comment on, a draft version of the document. They met with Arts Council members, and while they accepted the offer to review the document in good faith, their total opposition to the use of wild animals in circuses remained absolute, which position was noted by the Council.”

Animal welfare guidelines written by circuses, for circuses, deemed acceptable by ACI

In Freedom for Animals’ 2006 report, it was noted that the ACI had refused to provide us with copies of the circus’ ‘policies on animal welfare’ which it claimed were required before funding could be given. Freedom for Animals did subsequently obtain those policies and were disturbed to note that all three circus’ policies simply consisted of a copy of the animal welfare standards produced by the Association of Circus Proprietors (ACP) in 2006. These standards were widely criticised at the time as purely an attempt to justify using animals in performances and failing to provide serious standards of care.

The documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act include grant application forms and animal welfare policies for Circus Gerbola and Tom Duffy’s Circus, two of the animal circuses funded by Arts Council Ireland.

Once again, the animal welfare policies submitted by both circuses are simply a copy of the 2006 Association of Circus Proprietors guidelines. They do not appear to have been amended in any way to make them relevant to these circuses. Not only do they contain ‘standards’ for species the circuses do not have and are unlikely to use in the future, species not used in Irish circuses for many years (including primates and bears) are also included. In addition, with this document having been written in 2006, some of the requirements are likely to be outdated even by circus’ standards.

In 2009, Circus Gerbola included two fur seals in its show (and a third travelling with the circus but not performing), an act presented by Duo Borcani from Belgium. The documentation obtained by NARA includes Gerbola’s ‘Annual Programming Grant application form for funding in 2009’. This document refers to the 2009 show being “themed around water” and called ‘Aqua’. Despite providing an overview of the plan for the show, there is no mention of the use of fur seals or any other animals. Neither are they specifically mentioned in the animal welfare policy for the circus which was provided to NARA by ACI.

ACI official confirms that staff are not qualified to assess animal welfare

During June and July 2012, Freedom for Animals discussed concerns about the animal welfare framework with David Parnell, the ACI’s Head of Theatre and Circus. Although Mr Parnell was open in answering the queries put to him, it is clear that the ACI believes the standard documents provided by circuses are acceptable.

With regard to the role of the ACI in judging whether funding animal circuses is appropriate, Mr Parnell said of the framework:

“The document is not intended as a mechanism to debate the rights and wrongs of the use of animals in circuses. It takes as its starting point the fact that such acts are permissible under European and Irish law. As you know, the Arts Council is not responsible for the legislation, and so decided the best course of action was to introduce minimum standards of welfare for animals used in live performance (not just circus).”

In relation to animal welfare policies to be submitted by circuses requesting funding, Mr Parnell commented:

“The documentation received from funded circuses contains information relating to the welfare and care of the animals that each tours with. It may also include information about animals that the circuses could propose to tour with at a later date. It is understood that the governing body that a number of the organisations are members of issue guidance to their members (as would also be the case with membership organisations from other art forms.) The circuses can opt to present these guidelines or create their own as long as the paperwork presented includes the species that they are presently touring with.”

However, the ACI “does not have on staff specialists who assess whether the overall individual welfare policies meet the required standard”, adding: “however the policies that each submits have been matched against the European Circus Association and Association of Circus Proprietors own members’ policies which themselves provide an industry standard.” In other words, circuses can provide the full industry guidelines and these are accepted by the ACI as they are not qualified to assess whether these really provide standards to meet animals’ welfare needs.

Mr Parnell stated that circuses receiving funding must provide the relevant animal welfare documentation countersigned by qualified veterinary staff. These documents have not been seen by Freedom for Animals and were not included in the documentation provided under the Freedom of Information Act, so we are unable to verify whether they ensure the ACI’s Framework – one that appears based on self-regulation provided by industry-written guidelines – is met.

The Arts Council Ireland: A policy for the future?

Freedom for Animals has always recognised that circuses are an important part of the entertainment industry and, in Ireland, provide shows in many areas of the country where choices for live entertainment are limited, such as rural locations. Freedom for Animals’ opposition is not against circuses, just against the use of animals.

We appreciate that the role of the Arts Council Ireland is to support a broad spectrum of artistic work across the country. However, it needs to recognise the large, and increasing, opposition to the use of animals in circuses and to reflect public opinion on this. To offer the fact that the use of animals in circuses is not illegal as the justification for continued funding makes little sense as arts funding, by its very nature, is subjective and based on the individual artistic merit of the project. Put simply, just because a practice is legal does not infer that that practice has any artistic merit.

Tigers jumping through hoops, lions living in lorries and a dog standing on a pony’s back as it walks around a sawdust ring is not considered art by a growing number of members of the public and national governments alike. Furthermore, the increasing belief that the practice of using animals in circuses is both unethical and inherently cruel begs the question to those that maintain that the practice has some artistic value: Art, at what cost? People are said to have to suffer for their art. We maintain that animals should not.

We fully support ACI funding of circus arts but believe that this financial backing should be restricted to those circuses that do not use any animals and that ACI policy should adapt to encourage circuses currently using animals to replace them with high quality human performances.

There is a real need in Ireland for high quality all-human circuses, particularly ones that will commit to remaining free of animal acts. If Fossett’s, ‘Ireland’s National Circus’, can have four successful years without relying on performing animals, then clearly others can be encouraged to.

Given the level of funding the ACI currently gives to animal circuses and what is probably a large reliance for at least two of the circuses for that funding, such a change in policy could make a huge difference to persuading circuses to convert to all-human shows. This would open the shows up to new audiences of people who currently avoid animal circuses.

The ACI cannot continue to hide behind the smokescreen of an animal welfare policy which this report shows has no serious role in protecting animals.

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