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Circus ban opens up can of worms
  1. Josh Loeb

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In what ways are we morally entitled to make use of other animals for our own anthropocentric purposes? How, morally, can we justify the ways in which we use them?

These questions are the philosophical starting point for grievances that some animal rights groups have with people involved in almost any kind of relationship with animals, from farmers through to pet keepers and vets.

At the extreme end, their philosophy holds that no person should ever use any animal – full stop. For example, campaign group Peta believes that animals should never be experimented on, eaten, worn (including wool), used for entertainment or ‘abused’ in any other way.

‘Abuse’ includes pet keeping, since our ‘selfish desire to possess animals and receive love from them causes immeasurable suffering.’ Peta believes that, in an ideal world, domesticated dogs would not exist. Is that a world you would want to live in?

Thinking about the morality of people’s use of animals is not just something done by animal rights groups, though – peers do it too. The House of Lords was the scene last month for a debate about a proposal to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in England. In the event, this ended up being a rather more wide-ranging affair (see p 4).

At first glance, introducing such a ban might seem like a ‘no brainer’. Exhibiting wild animals for the purpose of people’s entertainment is clearly morally wrong, right? Not necessarily, no.

Lord Trees, veterinary editor-in-chief of this journal, summed up the problem in a speech he gave. His concern was not so much about the ban itself as about precedent and also the meaning of the terms ‘domesticated’ and ‘wild’.

Precedent because the government chose not to introduce its Wild Animals in Circuses Bill (the legislation needed to bring in the ban) on welfare grounds – there is no actual evidence of welfare problems that needed to be rectified. Instead, it chose to introduce the bill on somewhat more nebulous ‘ethical’ grounds.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly why using animals in travelling circuses is necessarily so much worse than using animals in any other form of entertainment. As animal welfare lawyer Mike Radford put it: ‘There appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments.’

The government seems to be suggesting that using animals for entertainment is ethically wrong

What the government seems to be suggesting is that using animals for our entertainment is ethically wrong – but, following that argument, horse racing and falconry displays would be ethically wrong too, so should also be banned.

Lord Trees, while concluding that he would ultimately support the government’s bill, nonetheless warned there was a possibility that ‘more extreme animal rights groups and clever lawyers’ would use the legislation as a springboard from which to mount legal challenges against all manner of activities involving animals, both wild and domesticated.

He pointed out that there is no clear dividing line between wild and domesticated (meaning selectively bred over time to be brought under human control). For example, of the supposedly ‘wild’ animals in English circuses (there are 19 in all), most are ones that many people globally would not consider to be wild. Six are reindeer and four are camels – both species are commonly domesticated elsewhere. Another is a zebu, an African cow that has been domesticated for 10,000 to 30,000 years.

Of the eight other animals, four are zebras, two are racoons, one is a fox and one is a macaw.

If it’s not clear that all the animals affected by the government’s ban are in reality actually wild, then this, too, could add fuel to calls to ban the keeping of various domesticated animals.

In short, the ban on wild animals in circuses opens up a philosophical can of worms.

Then again, once out of the can, those worms will no longer be in captivity – something that will at least please Peta.

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