Assembly Speech- Animal Welfare 26/1/2009


Mr Speaker/ Deputy Speaker

I welcome this debate and thank Mr Elliot, Mr McCallister and Mr Savage for sponsoring the debate.
I am going to come from a different perspective than previous speakers. I would like to make three points to remind members of past abuses of animals.

1. There was a time in this country when barbaric sports such as bear baiting drew large crowds; when wild bears were tormented to make them react in a violent way as entertainment. We have moved beyond this point.

2. There was also a time when organised dog fighting was common, open and thought to be acceptable. This barbaric activity is rejected by all right thinking people.

3. Cock fighting was a century’s old blood sport in which two birds, specifically bred for fighting fought to the death. Society rejected this bloody so called sport and moved on.
Each of these was recognised as cruel and nasty forms of animal treatment and society demanded the end of these types of animal exploitation.

However, there is a form of so-called entertainment that is still active, though declining, that many find unacceptable and for which people have been taken to court as they pose as animal lovers. I am of course referring to the animal menagerie or travelling circus. For too long now these outdated forms of perverted amusement have travelled the length and breadth of the UK, RoI and across Europe towing once magnificent wild animals in beast wagons for hours on end.
A circus is a commercial business activity that trains wild animals to carry out tricks that are not natural and require many hours of degrading routine practice until the animal, in the eyes of the whip carrying trainer, gets it right.

It is probable that any travelling circus coming to Northern Ireland will meet all their legislative obligations in terms of animal welfare but only because the law is so out of date.  However, over recent years there have been revelations about circus animals being ill treated to force them to perform for the paying public. The fact is that these proud and mighty animals do not easily take to riding on each others backs, jumping through hoops or any kind of act that requires them to endlessly rehearse until they meet the demands of the animal trainer.

A touring circus spends considerable lengths of time moving from location to location and the animals are caged as they travel in the beast wagons. They can be confined for hours with little time for exercise. It is impossible for a travelling menagerie to give the animals the amenities they need. Animals such as lions, rhinos, hippos, and elephants are shipped from across the seas on long gruelling journeys in beast wagons, usually from Italy, France and Germany.
I would encourage parents to give serious consideration to the welfare of animals before they visit any travelling circus. There are many successful circuses that do not use wild animals; those that do are an antiquated relic of an earlier period.

Belfast City Council has taken a welcome decision not to allow animal circuses on Council property; as have many types of Council across GB. It is time for the Assembly to give this matter consideration.

The work being carried out by all those engaged in animal welfare is invaluable to the protection of wild animals in captivity.  They have uncovered instances of animal cruelty in a number of travelling circuses, both north and south of the border. Things the circus owners don’t want the public to know. The closure of many circuses over recent years confirms the educated public’s declining interest in entertainment that involves degrading treatment of beautiful wild animals.

The current Animal Welfare legislation in Northern Ireland is over thirty years old. As it covers wild animals it is minimalist in content and significant risks have been taken by individuals to gather information on the ill-treatment of circus animals such is the lack of access for Council officers when a menagerie trundles into town.
With the matter now being debated it is time for Minister Gildernew to take action on this issue. To ensure that her officers research all the material available including the court cases and the wild animals in captivity behaviour case studies. Now is the time for the Minister to recognise that animal circuses belong to a bygone age and that our more enlightened and concerned children are refusing warped entertainment of this type. It is time to bring and end the circus ring; that ring of cruelty.