Events: Circus owner says “it’s a sad thing” animals are vanishing from the big top

Events: Circus owner says “it’s a sad thing” animals are vanishing from the big top

Things to do in Lincolshire…

Roll up, roll up, the circus is in town – spread this news and you can almost guarantee the first question people will ask is: ‘does it include animals?’.

Our appetite to watch animals perform for our viewing pleasure has virtually vanished in recent decades, and circuses have had to respond.

The circus as a form of entertainment is more than 250 years old, but in recent years it has had to adapt to the biggest shake up in its history.

It’s an evolution that could have destroyed the ancient spectacle and seen it consigned to the history books.

One person who has witnessed that evolution first hand is 59-year-old John Haze – co-founder of Circus of Horrors, owner of Moscow State Circus and one of the show directors for Continental Circus Berlin which currently has its big top open at the Lincolnshire Showground.

Dr Haze, aka John Haze, co-founder and performer in Circus of Horrors

John, who describes himself as “born and bred” in the circus, remembers watching 20 elephants walking through the streets of Preston as a child, on their way to the circus at Moor Park.

Elephants paraded through the streets of Lincoln for Billy Smart’s circus in 1955.

“That left a big impression on me,” said John. “And things like that are really going to.

“So the thing is, if you go to a circus and see a man stood in a lion cage that’s exciting and scary, therefore if you take that out of circus you have to replace it with something equally as exciting and scary.

“You have to evolve. That’s why Continental Circus Berlin replaces the excitement of animals with acts like the Circle of Death [also known as Wheel of Death] and that’s amazing when you see that, and the Globe of Death [also known as Globe of Steel] with two motorbike stunt riders at break neck speed.

“But for me [animals] were a normal part of the circus.”

‘Sawdust is in my veins’

John was born in Manchester, son of a lion tamer. The family moved to Preston to be nearer his maternal grandmother and his father soon found work at a circus in an act that involved two lions and two topless women in a cage.

“They gave my dad the job of presenting these lions but my mum was worried! Maybe as worried about the topless girls.

“So my dad then took a role as an advance manager – so looking into sites and doing the publicity.

“Most circuses had animals then, but not so many had wild animals. Mostly they had horses, lamas and dogs.”

John remembers one time when his dad convinced a circus in Ireland they were fire eaters.

“They believed him when he said we had this great fire eating act. I was 12 and I had never lit a match in my life. I stood there fire eating and pretended I had done it for years.

“A year later my dad ran away and left us again. I was 14.

“But I had got the sawdust in my veins and wanted to stay in the circus.”

 

“When I was about 20 I decided I wanted to leave. It was getting towards the end of the 70s and there were other things I wanted to do including travel more. I wanted to be a rock star – Mark Bolan was a big inspiration for me and I left the circus and joined a band which was relatively successful.

“But given my upbringing I started combining music and theatre. My other passion was also horror movies and I went on to found a show called Circus of Horrors.”

John would also go on to buy Moscow State Circus.

New law

He adds: “Last year circus celebrated 250 years and it was a British invention. Through all different periods of entertainment it has kept going but in the last 35 years it has changed dramatically.”

And circuses are about to experience another huge change.

Circus elephants draw the crowds in Lincoln in the 50s but the law about using wild animals is about to change

Circus animals are protected by the Animal Welfare Act and in England and wild animals must be licensed but there is currently no law to stop circuses using certain types of animals.

However, many have been campaigning for new law and the government pledged to ban the use of wild animals by travelling circuses in England from 2020.

On May 1, Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill to ban circus operators in England using wild animals.

The Government says the use of wild animals in travelling circuses has no place in modern society and does nothing to further the conservation or our understanding of wild animals (defined as animals that are not normally domesticated in Great Britain and would not naturally be found here).

Michael Gove said: “Travelling circuses are no place for wild animals in the 21st century and I am pleased that this legislation will put an end to this practice for good.”

David Bowles, head of public affairs at the RSPCA added: “We’ve campaigned against having wild animals in circuses for many years. They have complex needs that cannot be properly met in a circus environment. It’s high time keeping wild animals in circuses is consigned to the history books and we look forward to the day that it is banned for good in England.”

 

But John Haze maintains he has seen no cruelty in all his years in circus.

“I am a vegetarian. I love animals and I want to take a stand against abuse.

“But I didn’t see any cruelty to animals in circuses. They were treated better than the humans.

“I have not seen any cruelty whatsoever. Even training methods I’ve seen didn’t seem to be cruel in any way.

“Some people might say that when transporting them from one town to another you are putting them into a moving box but that’s really the only real argument people might have.

“But people have their own views and I accept that. I have an invested view and I can only say what I saw.

“However, we made a conscious decision 10-15 years ago to remove animals from our shows because the public didn’t want it – not because I think it’s warranted. It’s a sad thing but we are in show business.

“So we don’t use animals in any of our circuses now.

“Lots of venues won’t let animals on their sites either.”

 

John says he believes the circuses which might have been mistreating animals led the general public to believe all were.

He said: “I wonder ‘where do you stop’? Where do you draw the line? I think we have got into this situation where it is quite hypocritical.

“It seems circuses are just targets.

“Most people in the UK look after animals well, there might be just one or two who don’t. But most people love animals, most people look after their pets like they are their own children.

“But we had to make the decision to make circus about great human endeavour instead.

“Circus of Horrors and Cirque du Soleil these have proved that there is another type of circus that can be successful.

“Circus is an art from and is massively important and popular.”



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