Deputy Culture Editor - Theatre
How amusing do we still find the suffering of animals when we look behind the facade?
Content warning: this article contains references to animal cruelty that some readers may find upsetting.
Decades after almost universal bans on barbaric practices like dogfighting and bear-baiting, the use of animal suffering for entertainment has become more sophisticated. I’m not debating the morals of continually overt animal atrocities around the world: bullfighting in Spain or big game hunting in Africa. That would certainly fit the act of preaching to the choir. I’m not even going to discuss the foxhunting, which is still permitted in England, in too much detail - needless to say it’s an insult to the rule of law that so few people are convicted for illegally butchering defenceless foxes when so many are arrested for upholding the law against them when the police won't. One theme does connect foxhunting to many of the examples I’m actually going to use though: zoosadism. Whatever the ecological/cultural defences of foxhunting are, (because obviously the most efficient culling method is dogs, horses, and horns instead of a single bullet), the fact is that the hunters enjoy the suffering of the fox.
Zoosadism isn’t always so obvious; cheering as the bull bleeds, or as the fox is ripped apart is clearly wrong to anyone outside a bubble of indoctrination. What’s more pernicious is animal entertainment not derived from their suffering, but which necessitates it. Despite Scotland banning wild animals from circuses two years ago, England has failed to follow suit, leaving these un-domesticable creatures scared and trapped. When we see the lion and the lion-tamer we shouldn’t see the brave human testing their nerve against the master of the food chain; the real master holds the whip and the lion has much more to fear in reality. The fear of the fox or bull for its life is the same as the lion, just with less blood and more roaring. The RSPCA’s policy is: “We don't believe animals should be subjected to the conditions of circus life. Regular transport, cramped and bare temporary housing, forced training and performance, loud noises and crowds of people are often unavoidable realities for the animals.”
Animal sport, as a form of culture, also pads its pockets with animal suffering. Even if dog and horse races didn’t ruthlessly euthanise animals who were injured in the process of creating entertainment for fans, there would still be a huge number of injuries and deaths. Since 2007, 2,038 horses have been killed or euthanised because of horse racing, according to Race Horse Death Watch.
Animals suffer for our entertainment every year, especially when it can be hidden from us. Many of you reading this will have, like myself, taken part in activities with wild animals while on holiday. Many of us have pictures with elephants or camels. Once the tourists leave, the façade falls away and the wild animals are beaten into submission as “training” and are kept in cramped, inhumane conditions. I personally rode camels while in Morocco and now look back on it with a deep sense of shame. Of course, many traditional uses of camels are as humane as any human-animal relationship can be, but in this case there was no consideration for the animals as long as they could walk. They were tied so closely together they couldn’t lie down if another camel stood up and any disobedience was met with a whipping. Happy gap-year snaps with elephants don’t reflect the reality of what happens when the cameras are put away. A quick Google search uncovers the plethora of abuses employed to keep elephants obedient and profitable.
I’m not saying all wild animal activities are cruel, nor am I saying all zoos are cruel. With the right research and animal charity certificates you can enjoy these defining experiences guilt-free, because they can be cruelty-free. I had the pleasure of seeing camels kept by a Bedouin tribe in Jordan; the respect and conditions of their camels were a world of difference from what I’ve seen elsewhere. I am, however, saying that circuses and animal sports are always cruel, even when suffering isn’t the aim. Wild animals cannot enjoy life in circuses and dog/horse racing always causes the injury and death of the animals. Whenever we see animals in the context of our pleasure, we have to ask in the most difficult way: is our pleasure worth their pain? Is it really a manageable risk of suffering or are we just making excuses instead of hard decisions?