'Forced to do unnatural, mindless tricks': Why a once-popular pastime is under scrutiny

Michael Dahlstrom
·News and Video Producer

The future of circuses and dolphin parks could be decided by the so called “animals in entertainment” inquiry just announced by NSW parliament.

The announcement has stoked a fierce rift between animal rights groups and circuses as both vie for public support.

The inquiry will examine whether exotic animals should be performing tricks for human entertainment in NSW and the future of captive breeding programs.

Mark Banasiak from Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party will chair the inquiry, with Animal Justice Party’s Emma Hurst acting as deputy chair.

Ms Hurst told Yahoo News Australia that there needs to be legislative change in this particular area.

Animal welfare protesters outside Stardust Circus. Source: Animal Justice Party
Animal welfare protesters outside Stardust Circus. Source: Animal Justice Party

“I think that things that have been around for a long time, like circuses, are no longer acceptable for the community,” she said.

“These animals are forced to live and travel in the circus in cages to do unnatural, mindless tricks and to perform for a dwindling number of human audiences.

“Most people when I talk to them about the use of animals in circuses, they’re quite confused, they didn’t realise that it was still allowed and still going on.”

‘I feel like crying’: Circus manager

General manager of Stardust Circus, Glenn West, spoke to Yahoo News Australia whilst on tour in Warrawong, NSW.

He said it would break his heart if the inquiry ruled against him.

Mr West is the fifth generation of his family to lead the circus - a business which is essentially made up of five brothers and sisters and their children.

Stardust lion trainer Matthew Ezekial with a lion. Source: Stardust Circus
Stardust lion trainer Matthew Ezekial with a lion. Source: Stardust Circus

“With these circus animals, it’s not like we go and grab them from the wild, put them in a cage, beat the crap out of them like people are told - we breed them here in Australia,” he said.

“These are over 20 generations born in Australia of these animals.

“More generations than most people in this country - they are true blue bloody Aussie lions, mate.”

Mr West said his family have been targeted by animal rights groups after campaigns by PETA and Animals Australia.

“I feel like crying - it’s just heartbreaking how much we cop - we get abused, we get threats, we get people graffitiing our signs all the time, people consistently are stealing our signage,” he said.

“Every town, mate, we get it.

‘Far from the lives the animals would choose’

Lisa Chalk from Animals Australia responded to Stardust’s criticism, saying that circuses send children the wrong message about animals.

“They teach them that these animals exist purely for our entertainment,” she said.

“There is no educational value in forcing wild animals to perform unnatural tricks in a totally unnatural environment.”

PETA spokesperson Emily Rice told Yahoo News Australia that people who care about animals should stay away from circuses who use animals.

“Animals used in circuses spend most of their lives being carted from one performance to another or held in barren temporary enclosures and may even be beaten or punished as part of the circuses' barbaric training methods,” she said.

“At Australian circuses we’ve seen animals pacing back and forth, or lying in full sun, without shade or any form of enrichment – this is far from the lives these animals would choose were they free.

“Forcing any animal to perform absurd tricks for human entertainment is an archaic practice that has no place in Australia.”

A Stardust Circus trainer working with lions before a crowd. Source: Stardust Circus
A Stardust Circus trainer working with lions before a crowd. Source: Stardust Circus

Lions set to be retired

The tradition of exotic performing animals in NSW could be coming to an end, and Ms Rice said that PETA are willing to work with circuses to transition their animals into sanctuaries.

Mr West from Stardust said when his current lion pride retires, the tradition will end.

“We’ve already made a deal that we’re not going to breed any more lions for the circus,” he said.

“When these animals retire then we’re just going to stop using them.”

The only surviving dolphin park in NSW has phased out captive breeding and signalled they are investigating retiring their dolphins to sea pens.

Dolphin Marine Conservation Park’s managing director Terry Goodall told Yahoo News Australia that family expectations have changed and he welcomed the inquiry.

“It has to be balanced, and it has to take everything into consideration including legacy animals that have found themselves in human care,” he said.

“The days of bikini clad women riding dolphins on surfboards and skis is not acceptable to a lot of people any more.

“With our dolphins, we let them show people what they do in the wild.

“People who visit the park walk away with a much, much stronger appreciation of the animals and hopefully they go away thinking twice before dropping their Coke bottle on the beach.”

‘Things people refuse to remember’

Mr West is a man to whom tradition is important - he recalls that during the war, Stardust and other circuses were called on by the government to entertain the troops.

“Every single circus stopped to entertain the troops and let the army use all our trucks during the war,” he said.

“So Australia needed us.

“There’s little things that people just refuse to remember.”

He said some people have suggested his circus should be heritage listed, but he knows that community expectations have changed.

Ms Hurst is looking to the future, working to improve the lives of animals not yet born.

“You think about the fact that some of these dolphins will live for 50 years in captivity,” she said.

“That means that some of the dolphins that I saw as a child, when I didn’t realise some of the welfare implications of keeping dolphins in captivity, are possibly still in same chlorinated pools, doing the same meaningless tricks, 12 hour shifts with loud blaring music and that’s really quite depressing that this is their lives.

“When you consider that another dolphin would live for another 50 years, we’ve just got to make sure that there are no more animals born into this.”

‘Protected from extreme animal right activism’

Following publication of this article, the inquiry chair, Mr Banasiak issued a statement to Yahoo News Australia saying the Fishers, Shooters and Farmers Party opposes the inquiry.

“It is part of a dirty deal between the Government and the Animal Justice Party for AJP changing their mind about (supporting) disability advocacy funding,” he said.

“Therefore my aim is to ensure that Circus operators, exhibitors of cetaceans, and any other animal industry’s are protected from extreme animal right activism.”

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