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Many kinds of animals are used in different ways for the purpose of entertainment. In many cases, the process of obtaining and using animals for entertainment compromises their welfare, depicts them in a humiliating way, and can be damaging for the conservation of wildlife. The following information is an attempt to summarise these issues, to explain Animals Asia's policy towards the use of animals in entertainment, and to suggest ways in which people can help reduce needless exploitation.
In which kinds of entertainment are animals used?
Animals are used for the purpose of entertainment in all kinds of circumstances, all over the world. These include animals that are held and perform tricks in zoos, shows and circuses, animals that are used as photographic props for tourists, and animals used in television and film.
The circumstances in which these animals are used varies enormously. Some circuses or shows make animals perform in front of large paying audiences. Other animals belong to people who use them to “beg” on the streets or offer them as photographic opportunities for tourists. Many zoos are organised merely as theme parks with little concern for welfare or public education, where the animals are simply props to entertain the funfair-going public.
Some parks in China advertise the feeding of live “prey” animals to big cats and other predators as a form of entertainment, a practice first exposed by Animals Asia in 1999, the continued exposure and fight against which forms a central part of our “Project Asia” campaign. Some animals are forced to fight and kill each other, or are tortured and killed by people, in the name of sport and entertainment. Even some religious organisations such as Buddhist temples keep animals as photographic opportunities for tourists, in order to make money. Recent news reports describe restaurants in Japan where macaques are trained to work as waiters in restaurants.
Whatever the circumstances, the use of animals in entertainment more often than not involves removing the animal from its natural habitat, and keeping it in very unnatural conditions. Many animals used for entertainment are treated in barbaric and cruel ways.
Tourists in Thai bars pay to have their photo taken with baby gibbons
In China, bears are forced to perform for the public
Feeding live animals to predators in Chinese zoos is offered as a public spectacle
A child is photographed sitting astride a tiger at the Tiger Temple in Thailand
Wild animals are offered as cheap photo opportunities at Shanghai Wild Animal Park
A tourist in a bar in Phuket, Thailand, is photographed with an iguana
Which animals are used for the purpose of entertainment?
A huge variety of animals are used to entertain people. The most obvious are the big charismatic mammals, such as elephants used in circuses, festivals or for begging throughout India and Asia, monkeys and gibbons offered as photographic props on tourist beaches, dolphins and sea lions entertaining the paying public in zoos and aquariums all over the world, tigers and other big cats used in expensive shows in Las Vegas and other glamorous cities, bulls and horses used in bullfighting in Europe and Latin America. However, many other animals are used for the purpose of entertainment, such as fish in restaurant tanks, caged birds, reptiles and snakes in street shows, and birds of prey in falconry displays. The list is endless.
Where do these animals come from?
Animals for use in entertainment come from many sources. Some are bred specifically for the purpose, such as domestic elephants in Asia, or birds of prey for falconry. Many are taken from the wild, and the trade in wild animals for this purpose is huge.
Imagine tourists on a Thai beach resort paying to have their photo taken with a young gibbon on their shoulder. The gibbon will have been taken from its mother in the wild when it was very young so it can be “trained” to be compliant for its new owner. In order to get the young gibbon, its mother, and probably several other family members, will almost certainly have been killed.
The horror doesn't end there; the young gibbon will be used by its owner to make money until it reaches puberty, when it will become aggressive and difficult to handle; at this point it may be sold on, abandoned or killed. If it is very lucky it may end up in a rescue centre. The owner will then buy another young gibbon, obtained by causing the death of several more. And this whole cycle is perpetuated because tourists pay a little money for what seems to be an innocent holiday photo.
How are these animals kept and treated?
Most animals in entertainment are simply used as a means of making money. The conditions in which they are kept are usually at best unsuitable, at worst barbaric and cruel. Often social animals such as primates are kept in isolation. Animals in travelling shows and circuses are forced to travel for hours on end, and held in isolation in tiny cages for almost all of their lives, to be brought out only for the few minutes of their “performance”. The people responsible for keeping them often have no training in animal welfare or husbandry, and the animals are often fed an inappropriate diet and given little or no enrichment.
The “training” techniques adopted to force animals to perform tricks are also often barbaric. Most trainers use some degree of “negative reinforcement”, in other words they train the animal by punishing it when it doesn't do what they want. The brutality of the training of elephants and big cats for circuses, in countries all over the world, has been exposed by a number of organisations, including “Circus Exposed” in North America (http://circusexposed.ca/).
When these animals are confiscated by the authorities, or no longer wanted because they no longer serve their purpose, they are usually impossible to rehabilitate into the wild, and are often discarded or killed.
Isn't there an educational value?
People who use animals for entertainment often claim that they play an important educational role, giving people the opportunity to get close to wild animals and learn about the things they are able to do. However, it is well recognised that there is little or no educational value in people seeing animals that are not kept in conditions resembling their natural habitat, nor is there any educational value in watching animals in captivity perform tricks.
"...exhibits of zoo animals must show the animal in a respectful way that emphasizes the animal's natural environment and behavior. Only then will the zoo provide the optimal animal-human connection that promotes conservation-mindedness among zoo visitors." from Marc Bekoff's Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships.
“Not a lot can be learned by looking at caged animals, especially when they are acting abnormally...” From Rob Laidlaw's Wild Animals in Captivity.
“(Zoos claiming) they teach visitors about wildlife conservation and habitat protection, and their contention that they motivate members of the public to become directly involved in wildlife conservation work doesn't stand up to scrutiny...”Rob Laidlaw, Zoocheck Canada.
The public feeding of live prey to big cats and other predators in Chinese parks has been defended as both a means of educating the public, and of “training” the animals for release into the wild (so-called “barbarisation training”). However, Dr Zhang Li, formerly IFAW's China Director, said “the so-called barbarisation training cannot revive tigers' predatory abilities and it serves no educational end. It only provides the audience with a cruel, bloody show, which may severely harm the psychological well-being of the children present”.
Also, there is no evidence that the parks ever intend to release the predators into the wild – most of the animals concerned are not even endemic to the regions in which they are held – and even if they did, such releases rarely result in the survival of the released animals, so there is no conservation benefit.
The only things we learn from seeing an animal in a barren enclosure, performing tricks in a circus or on a street corner, or being torn apart by other starved animals in a park, is the size, shape and colour of the animal, and how humans can make animals do unnatural things using brutal and cruel training techniques. The only thing the animals learn is how to behave unnaturally.
What about safety?
There have been many documented incidents of animals used in the entertainment industry causing injury and even the death of their handlers and members of the public. Several have involved elephants used in parks and circuses, such as the death of a British nurse killed by a rampaging elephant at a Thai park in 2000 (see link), and the death of a bus driver and an elephant following a collision in Mexico in September 2008 (see link) . There have also been well publicised incidents involving big cats, not least, in 2003, the mauling of Roy Horn of the Siegfried and Roy show in Las Vegas by one of their tigers, which left him permanently disabled. See Circus Incidents
Attacks, Abuse and Property Damage for a list of incidents involving circus animals published by the Humane Society.
The safety for the viewing public of “live-feeding shows” at Chinese wildlife parks has been seriously brought into question by the Environment and Animal Ethics Group in China.
Bringing some animals into close contact with the public for the purpose of entertainment can be associated with significant disease risks. Probably the most worrying involve primates, which are known to carry viruses and bacteria that can cause serious disease in people, such as herpes simiae, hepatitis A, measles, shigellosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, and others.
Wild animals are just that - “wild” - keeping them in poor conditions, feeding them the wrong food, and forcing them to perform tricks while bringing them close to the public, makes them much more dangerous.
What about conservation?
Taking animals from the wild to use or trade in the entertainment industry can have devastating effects on wild populations. In Thailand, it is estimated that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 gibbons being held in captivity, as pets or for use in the tourist trade, even though the keeping of wild animals without permits was made illegal as far back as 1992.
Gibbons are listed as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered (depending on the species) by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the populations of all species in the wild are decreasing.
Parrots and macaws from Africa and Latin America, so sought after for their value as “entertaining pets”, are taken from the wild in large numbers in spite of many species being in decline; most of the captured animals do not survive their journey to the lucrative markets in Europe, North America and Asia. Yet the trade continues.
Many, many species of animals are now threatened by human activities. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature in October 2008 estimated that nearly a quarter of all mammal species are threatened with extinction. The capture and trade in animals for use in entertainment is a significant contributor to this threat for many species.
What is Animals Asia's stance on animals in entertainment?
Animals Asia believes that it is wrong to use any animal for the purposes of public entertainment or sport if it results in any compromise of the health or welfare of the animal concerned, if it requires the capture and/or confinement of the animal from the wild, or if it projects the animal to the public in a way which is humiliating or contrary to the principles of promoting empathy and respect.
So how can you help?
When you are next thinking of visiting facilities that hold wild animals in captivity, or you see wild animals being used for tourism or shows, consider the following:
Check first to see if the facility is a member of a reputable association (such as the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums), which requires them to uphold certain standards of animal care and welfare, and provide opportunities for conservation activities and education
Ask the facility about their education and conservation programmes (if they have them)
Don't attend “shows” where animals are asked to perform “tricks” for rewards which wouldn't be part of their natural behaviour
Report institutions that appear to be mistreating animals to the relevant authority or association
Don't pay to have your photo taken with a captive wild animal, or give money to people who parade animals on the streets
Support organisations that campaign for better treatment of captive wild animals, and lobby your government representative for the introduction and enforcement of legislation to protect all animals against exploitation and abuse