Rural Notes 07



How disheartening to hear the allegations of animal abuse levelled against a circus company recently. As of writing, the case is in court, the owners charged with causing unnecessary suffering and failing to prevent animal cruelty over the treatment of Anne, an Asian elephant. The video footage on the news of an animal handler kicking her and hitting her with a pitchfork, will have upset most readers, not just animal lovers.

For many years traditional circuses have divided popular opinion, but throughout the past few decades there has been ever increasing public unease at the concept of them using animals for the entertainment of a paying gallery.

I own to some surprise that there still exist circus companies which include animals in their acts at all, let alone such regal examples as elephants. In over twenty years of living in East Lothian, I have never been aware of any circus performing locally, and I cannot recall any reports of ‘traditional’ circuses touring shires further afield in recent years. This was not always the case. As a young graduate working in a mixed practice in the 80’s, I had regular contact with travelling circuses. With hindsight, my bosses clearly viewed circus work as the preserve of their younger assistants, but at the time, each visit was a really stimulating challenge for an inexperienced vet, and I have very fond memories of some of my contacts.

My first case had me anaesthetising a puma, and repairing a break by inserting a pin into her leg. By the nature of travelling circuses, my patient was relocated some distance away within days of her operation, but luckily, the circus passed close by a couple of months later and I was asked to re-examine her and confirm the repair was complete and she could return to her performing duties. Whatever the rights or wrongs, young vets dream of such experiences.

On another occasion, I was called to attend the circus on the day it arrived nearby, to examine a camel with diarrhoea. My first misfortune was to invite my housetmate, a journalist, to accompany me. My second was to arrive shortly after the ‘big top’ had been erected, and everyone had disappeared to the pub. Everyone that is, except the ‘Smallest Man in the World’. The sign outside his caravan said as much, and whether he really was, he was definitely very small. What he lacked in stature, he compensated in helpfulness and immediately offered to help me examine the poorly creature. Clearly on good terms with ‘Sandy’, he seemed at ease stroking its nose after untethering it so I might peer in its eyes and examine its tongue.

All went well until I decided to check its temperature. No sooner had I lifted the tail when it reared its head and the smallest man in the world, bravely clinging to the bridle, found himself with his feet 4 feet from the ground, hanging on for dear life whilst this ship of the desert gave a lap of honour around the big top. With the journalist clutching his splitting sides, I ran after my two new friends until I learned at first hands that camels really do spit. Putrid smelly spit. At the end of the lap, the camel stopped by its hay net and a very shaken, very small man slid down the lead rope back to terra firma.

This occasion also had a happy outcome as the camel keeper returned and successfully nursed Sandy to full health. In all my dealings with the people responsible for the welfare of the circus animals, they were capable and caring and it seems all the sadder that as the number of circuses has dwindled, so too has the skills set and compassion which once seemed to go hand in hand with them. Perhaps, with Anne reduced to a side show, the livelihood of her circus no longer depended on her wellbeing in the way that once might have ensured her proper care.


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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group