Public Affairs Ireland | Training and Development | Conferences

Thursday 30 November 2017

Maureen O’Sullivan a lecturer in law (Above the Bar) at NUI Galway, a Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and Chairperson of the Vegetarian Society of Ireland. She is also a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh where she is doing a PhD in reform of the European patent system.

Our treatment of animals, especially those used for entertainment, has come under increasing scrutiny in recent times. Whilst the vast majority of people turn a blind eye to the cruelties involved in industrialised farming and continue to consume meat, forums in which animals are displayed publicly are becoming less popular and have been attracting negative publicity. Ongoing court cases seeking personhood rights for apes are current in New York; in Colombia and Argentina, certain bears and apes have had these rights recognised already, resulting in their being moved to larger animal sanctuaries as their continued confinement in restrictive environments is no longer considered acceptable. The keeping of orcas, also known as killer whales or “Blackfish”, have led to “entertainment” providers such as Seaworld substantially curtailing their business. Zoos are becoming more and more polemical as public awareness of animal intelligence and sentience grows.

The issue of circuses and their continuity is now being debated on the world stage and Ireland has just pledged to introduce legislation that would ban the use of wild animals in circuses from 2018. Attention has been drawn on social media to cruelty to these animals. Indeed, in the Oireachtas debates, Deputy Paul Murphy TD highlighted the brutal attacks on activists and Gardaí in Ireland by employees of the Belly Wien circus during peaceful protests last year.[i] The instantaneous communication facilitated by Facebook and smartphones, along with other social media devices, means that such abusive behaviour can now be live-streamed. As such, it becomes more difficult to hide away. If such behaviour towards human beings is openly displayed, one cannot imagine that the treatment of vulnerable animals behind closed doors will be any better and, in fact, is likely to be considerably worse.

I have only ever once been to a circus when I was a primary school teacher in Spain over 20 years ago. We were obliged to bring our classes to see a circus in which the main animals used were tigers. There was a heart-stopping moment when the trainer got each of four tigers, bar the last, to exit the ring by cracking a whip in the air. When he came to the last tiger, he cracked the whip once and the tiger did not move. Twice, and still no response. On the third occasion, I had broken out in a cold sweat and was dreading what I imagined what was to come – all in the space of a few seconds. The trainer then dropped down on one knee and gallantly indicated towards the exit, after which the tiger graciously obliged and trotted off.

Pitting wild beasts against humans in this fashion undoubtedly causes a huge adrenaline rush for the audience and it is certainly a spectacle that will stay with me until my dying day. Had the outcome not been favourable for the trainer, the school I taught at would have had some fraught parents and traumatised pupils to deal with and from the human vantage point, a potentially tragic outcome. However, at all points in this tale, the humans had the upper hand. The animals were out of their environment and would, undoubtedly, have been “destroyed” had they taken a human life.

On three occasions within the past 10 years, on visits to East Cork, there have been circuses in the vicinity. In Youghal, an elephant was housed temporarily in a tiny field for a few weeks. Some weeks later, animals such as camels were roaming freely on the streets of Midleton during the day. In 2012 when I was attempting to travel downtown in Youghal, traffic was held up by a parade of six elephants that were lumbering down the high street, ostensibly kept in check by their trainers who lumbered alongside. The inappropriateness of the use of the animals in this way is evident. Their transport, confinement, health (both physical and mental) and over-work are just some of the matters of concern when dealing with these highly intelligent and, essentially, wild animals and our use – or abuse – of them and of their lives.

Several County Councils whose councillors have become more aware of the public’s concern with the welfare of wild animals in these environments had already banned circuses that used wild animals in their shows from taking place on public lands in their area. However, this did not stop such circuses renting private land. So, the introduction of legislation[ii] is a reflection of the zeitgeist.

The legislation entitled the Prohibition of Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2017 would amend the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 by introducing an offence of using wild animals in circuses and also of training wild animals for performance or exhibition in a circus. Given that horses and dogs, which are classified as domesticated animals, are used widely in circuses, a controversy has arisen in that these are currently excluded from legislative protection. Deputy Murphy indicated his disagreement with the limitations of the Bill in the Dáil debates; he also believes that the legislation could bring an effective end to animal circuses. Some circuses, such as Fossetts Circus, has not used wild animals in its shows since 2005 but is now lobbying to ensure that domesticated animals such as horses and dogs can continue to be used. Otherwise, they say, their tradition will die out. However, they could transform their shows, increasing the use of acrobats and emulate the Cirque du Soleil – which has never used animals. They could also opt to include more comedy, although sensitive modern audiences, perhaps peppered with coulrophobics (those who fear clowns) may have to be consulted about any such radical change!

Much remains to be legislated against in the area of the rights of animals. Ireland still allows fur farming and hare coursing which, if one reads the letter of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013[iii], makes no sense. Attempts by my namesake, Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan TD, to have hare coursing banned has been unsuccessful to date. Why exclude some animals from protection if the overarching concern is to protect not only the animals’ physical health, but also their mental health? Why not have a ban on foie gras or, indeed, have a principled revision of our treatment of animals in general? We’re not talking about voting rights for amoebas in this context, but it is notable that Article 13 Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union recognises animals as “sentient beings”[iv]. Perhaps the time is arriving in which we need to define the parameters of what this actually means for the animals themselves, in light of growing irrefutable evidence that our treatment of the animal kingdom is in need of urgent and radical revision.

The banning of wild animals in circuses represents merely the tip of the iceberg in this arena.


[i] Dáil debates, 9 March 2017. Available here.

[ii] Private Members Bill, “The Prohibition of Wild Animals in Circuses Bill 2017”. Available here.

[iii] Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013. Available here.

[iv] Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Article 13. Available here.

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