Legality of animal shows in question

Updated: 2013-03-07 10:41

By Zhang Yue (China Daily)

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As a circus troupe owner, Ma Haiying has not returned home to Suzhou, Anhui province, for Spring Festival for years.

The Lunar New Year period is one of the hottest seasons for circus performances. Many local residents and tourists take the opportunity during the holiday season to watch shows at amusement parks and zoos.

This year, Ma's troupe performed with four other circus groups in Anyang, Henan province, earning 900,000 yuan ($143,000) during the one-week break.

But she describes the money as "illegal" because she did not get the required licenses.

Transporting her circus troupe - consisting of four tigers, four lions, six bears and a sheep - requires certification.

"It takes at least one month to get the certificate because it requires approval from the forestry administrations of two provinces," she says. "By the time I got them, I would have lost out big time. I'd rather be illegal."

Luckily, there was no traffic check during the five hours' drive to Anyang.

Ma, her animals and the trainers perform year-round throughout the country.

In recent years, Ma has felt an increasing pressure on the business she has been doing for more than 30 years - because of increasingly complicated procedures and animal protection rules.

"My husband is the eighth generation of the family's circus business," she says. "In the 1980s and 1990s, we used to train animals using violence."

For example, she says, trainers beat up animals that did not follow instructions.

Now, they motivate the animals with food.

That means the animals have to be hungry before training begins.

Like most circus troupes in Suzhou, Ma brings all the animals home after the performing season and pampers them by housing them in bigger cages in her backyard.

Private circus troupes have been the target of animal protection groups in recent years.

Kati Loeffler, scientific adviser for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Beijing, says circus performances should be forbidden for a number of reasons.

"Forcing wild animals to perform for public entertainment is wrong," she says.

"Wild animals need to have space and freedom and opportunity to allow them to exercise normal behaviors. For tigers, this means about 500 square kilometers of space. All of this requires a natural, wild environment. Such an environment cannot be reproduced in captivity. It most certainly can never be reproduced in a circus wherever it is.

"Wild animals naturally avoid humans. They prefer to stay as far away as possible from humans," she says. "And if the animal is then subjected to brutal training methods, the animal also lives a life of chronic fear."

Yang Qing, program manager for animal welfare with Animals Asia Foundation, says she has noticed that many circuses declaw tigers so they will not hurt humans.

"Private circus troupes have many problems, such as feeding and healing the animals when they are ill, because most of them have no medical qualifications," Yang says.

Sun Jiang, professor at the Northwest University of Politics and Law, says there is no legislation to protect circus animals in China.

"The closest we have is the step taken by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in October 2010: The ministry passed a regulation that makes it illegal for zoos to use their animals for performances," Sun says. He explains that, to date, there is no law or regulation on the qualification of circus animal trainers.