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Mistreated for the Three-Ring Show

By Francesca Colombo*

Circus animals suffer mistreatment in Italy. Activists are demanding a ban, but the circus owners refuse.

ROME - Dancing bears, ball-balancing seals, an elephant that stands on its head, and lions and tigers that jump through flaming hoops are among the attractions of circuses in Italy and around the world. But behind these acrobatics is suffering and abuse.

Animal defense organizations are demanding a ban on the use of animals in such spectacles, but circus owners argue that it would put an end to their business.

There are 130 circuses in Italy, the most in Europe. They are run by 60 families and involve 1,300 captive animals.

The animal rights activists say that many are subjected to beatings, whippings, electrical charges and starvation, and are often drugged.

''These animals live in poor conditions and the training techniques are cruel and violent. The government does little to regulate the activity of trainers,'' Giovanni Guadagna, head of the circus campaign for the animal rights league, LAV, told Tierramérica.

Circus animals live in worse conditions than the animals in zoos. They are kept in small cages and travel thousands of kilometers with the circus, without light or water, according to the activist.

In 2003, the attorney general of Reggio de Calabria, in southern Italy, issued a condemnation of the Luana Orfei circus for keeping 13 tigers (including three cubs), a hippopotamus, seven seals, a horse, a pony, three bears and two buffalo in cages considered too small.

The Nando Orfei circus was fined in 2003 for keeping four elephants tied up with metal chains in conditions harmful to the giant mammals' health.

The owners admit the use of violent training methods. The director of the Liana Orfei circus says hyenas cannot be trained even if they are beaten a hundred times, and seals will only respond if they are made to go hungry because their skin is too delicate to withstand beatings.

''We condemn and denounce those who mistreat animals, because we want them to have the best possible life. But a circus without animals would be absurd. Those that have tried have gone bankrupt,'' Antonio Girola, spokesman for the European Circus Association, told Tierramérica.

Animals kept in cages and under constant pressure develop behavioral disorders: tigers will walk only in circles, horses constantly shake their heads, and elephants constantly shift their weight.

Experts say that the chimpanzee's ''smile'' is really an expression of tension, as is the dash animals make for their cages once they have performed in the circus ring.

Liana Orfei recounts how in the Italian summer of 2003, when the circus was set up on the southern beaches of Puglia, Jennie the elephant was tied up in the normal way. When she saw the Mediterranean Sea, she seemed to go mad. She broke her chains and ran into the water, standing at a depth of one meter for two days, refusing to leave despite threats and lack of food.

In 1997, an elephant from the Errani circus killed her trainer, an elephant from the Medrano circus threw a child into the air, and another from the Williams circus broke its chains and ran through Rome, causing a great deal of damage.

The Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), signed by Italy, put an end to trafficking of threatened animals for circuses. Traffickers would kill groups of up to 15 chimpanzees in the wild in order to capture one.

''We have seized an illegal gorilla, elephants, tigers and leopards. Most of these animals showed abnormal behavior, had health problems and were fed spaghetti and chocolate'' instead of appropriate animal feed, CITES official Ugo Mereu told Tierramérica.

''A chimpanzee wearing a vest would not let us remove it. We took a gorilla to the Rome zoo, but because he had never seen another one of his species he was terrified,'' Mereu said.

Circuses receive government aid because they are considered cultural attractions, but ''the spectacle is not educational. It is a dangerous model of learning that could change the way children see animals,'' and suggests that ''human domination and power over the weak is acceptable,'' says LAV activist Ilaria Marucelli.

* Francesca Colombo is a Tierramérica contributor.




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External Links

LAV - Italian animal rights

European Circus Association

CITES

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