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Wildlife as captive entertainment

Saturday 19th July 2014

Lion Tamer

It still goes on


We all know that wild animals have been used to entertain us. This entertainment goes back thousands of years to the Roman Circuses where gladiators fought lions, where Christians were Roman circusessupposedly fed to lions, and where lions were allowed to kill other animals in front of an audience.Bones of gladiators with supposed lion bite marks have been found as far north of Africa as York in the UK. 

Lions were kept at the menagerie of the Tower of London for the entertainment of visitors well over 700 years ago. Potentates, sultans, kings kept lions in private collections to impress their visitors. The menagerie of the Tower of London menagerieseven included a polar bear and an elephant. People flocked to such displays of captured animals. Menageries did a brisk business to display such amazingly wonderful species as giraffes and rhinos to open mouthed European crowds in the 1800s and 1900’s. 

And so did the circuses where “animal acts” were invented. Perhaps the “dangerous” animal acts can be traced back to American animal trainer Isaac Van Amburgh who made his spectacular entry into the circus world in the 1830’s. 

While in England, Van Amburgh performed for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1844. So impressed was the Queen that Van Amburghshe commissioned artist Edwin Landseer (sculptor of the lions on Trafalgar Square) to paint a portrait of Van Amburgh and his cats.

Van Amburgh, even in his day, was accused of animal cruelty 


So what have we learned? Not very much it would seem. Captive wild animals continue to be exploited for our entertainment.

Even respected organizations like the London Zoo seem to allow hundreds of alcohol-imbibing visitors to gain access to the animals on Friday nights. These nights raise much money for the zoo, but is it OK to have a tiger covered in beer meanwhile?

And now we hear that Siegfried and Roy, Las Vegas animal entertainers, have just started another round of their shows. You might remember that Roy was set upon by a tiger in one of his shows in 2003. Roy was seriously injured and the show was closed, but not for long. Siegfried and the handicapped Roy now want to begin again – with white lions as their star attraction.

These white lions were sourced from captive lion breeders in South Africa. The same ones who supply captive bred lions to the canned lion hunting industry.

White lions are unfortunate animals. Highly inbred to maintain their recessive coat colour they are bred and sold all over the world to zoos, circuses and private owners. Their “mystical” distinction from other lions is promoted by many, and feeds this commerce.

So where do we go from here? Have we graduated from the days of Van Amsburg and the Roman Circuses?

Some say we are making progress. In some countries circuses are no longer allowed wild animal entertainers. But these animals still will entertain in the new Siegfried and Roy revised shows in the USA and entertain Friday night parties at the London Zoo.

Is it a case of confused priorities or just continued exploitation?

Picture credits:

The Nubian Giraffe – Jaques Laurent Agasse, 1827

The Christian Martyr’s Last Prayer – Jean-Leon Gerome, 1883

Isaac Van Amburg – Edwin Landseer, 1830

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Posted by Chris Macsween at 17:53

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