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The suffering of China’s circus animals

Wild animals are suffering permanent disability or death during circus performances, says Jin Yipeng, deputy professor of veterinary medicine at China Agricultural University

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Conservationists have called for an end to the licensing of wild animals for circus performances. (Image by Li Feng)

Chinadialogue: (CD): Can you tell us some stories of wild animals which have been hurt?

Jin Yipeng (Jin):
I’ll talk about two cases. One happened in 2007, a Bengal tiger in a circus in the south lost its sight while jumping through a ring of fire.

The circus vet probably wasn’t very well trained and couldn’t do anything. Its two eyes had turned white, with the corneas ulcerating after being burned. There might have still been burnt matter in there, I can’t be sure. The hair on its head had been scorched off, and there was a burn the size of a bowl on its forehead.

The ring of fire was an iron ring draped with cotton soaked in some kind of fuel. The circus vet told me the tiger had hit its head on the ring as it jumped, and that it may also have breathed in the flames.

The tiger couldn’t perform any more, so the circus just had to look after it. But tigers eat a lot, so they might have sold it on. I don’t know what happened to it.

Second, there was a black bear. This happened in 2008. Black bears can be trained to stand on their hind legs and box like people do.

I saw one of these boxing bears which had been made to stand on its hind legs for so long it had arthritis, which developed into chronic hip damage and then necrosis. It would have been disabled for the rest of its life.

I took an X-ray and saw that surgery would have been an option. The circus didn’t think the bear was worth the costs, so it didn’t happen.

If it had been a bit younger it might have been sold to a bear bile farm, but it was older. It couldn’t perform, couldn’t be sold, and the circus would have to pay to feed it – a bear eats as much as eight or nine people. Fodder is expensive, so the circuses just give them a little low quality food. It was already skin and bones when I saw it.

CD: What difficulties are there in treating wild animals from circuses and zoos?

Jin: They will scratch at wounds and dressings, that’s in their nature.

In 2009 a bear in one zoo broke a bone after falling from a bridge during a performance. It was treated and recovered. But it didn’t recover fully – once it woke up from the anaesthetic the pain caused it to scratch off its dressings. Once an animal is injured it’s very hard to treat.

Another problem is a shortage of professional vets. Circus trainers often double up as vets, but they haven’t had any proper training – they just give them some antibiotics for infections. Only if there’s a bigger problem, an animal that won’t eat or can’t work, do they call for a proper vet. So a lot of harm is done by chronic problems such as pain and inflammation.

Professional vets are licensed by the Ministry of Agriculture, but that doesn’t cover treating wild animals, and this type of practice is much harder. China’s first course on wild animal medicine only started in 2008, and most vets just apply the same methods they use for domestic pets.

CD: What animals are most likely to be harmed during training and what types of injury do they suffer?

Jin: Mostly its large animals – lions, tigers, bears. They are clever and easy to train, and also popular with audiences.

They suffer four main types of injury. First is joint damage. Animals normally stand on four legs, but are made to stand on their hind legs during training, which puts all their weight on the back legs. Over the long term that causes permanent joint damage or even necrosis and paralysis. For humans this would be very likely to cause disability, and the animals often acquire these problems in their youth, meaning they suffer for the rest of their lives.

Sometimes the trainers have them jump on two legs – for a half-tonne bear that can instantly rupture ligaments and tendons. In theory that damage can be repaired, but it doesn’t happen and the animals are unlikely to recover and are left paralysed.

Elephants suffer worst of all from this type of training. An elephant bears most of its weight on its joints, and damage to hips, knees and ankles has been found during autopsies even of animals that weren’t in the circus. Such problems would cause the animal great pain.

Circus elephants are trained to take a position known as “praying to the Buddha” – standing on hind legs, with forelegs raised. This pressure this pose puts the elephant’s hind hooves can cause injury. When the pain prevents it from standing, it will instead kneel and raise its forelegs. Over the long term it will develop severe arthritis. Worst of all, I often see performing elephants unable to stand from the pain and forced to kneel, which leaves them with festering wounds on their knees. We couldn’t do anything for them, even if their owners wanted us to.

Second, spinal injuries. Normally the spines of four-footed animals can’t bear much weight. When an elephant stands on its hind legs a half-tonne load is placed on its lower spine, which can cause a painful prolapse. Worse, the pressure on the spinal cord can lead to paralysis or incontinence.

Third is the removal of teeth. This should be done under anaesthetic, with both root and tooth removed and proper follow-up care. But normally trainers simply snap the canines in two with pliers when they first appear, while the animal is still young. That leaves the nerve exposed, which is very painful. Over the next year or two the continued pain will reduce the amount the animal eats, or force it to swallow food without chewing. This causes gastric and digestive problems.

Fourth is declawing. Properly this would be done under anaesthetic, with the entire claw and joint removed. But as with the teeth, the trainers simply cut off the claw and a bit of bone while the animal is young, and leave the joint. The animals adopt odd stances to avoid putting weight on the painful wound, but this puts the load on non-weight bearing joints, causing arthritis. We see this a lot in China, with almost every lion or tiger that’s been declawed.

The most common of all is wounds inflicted during training. Trainers use barbed hooks to force the animal to complete its tasks. This leaves small but numerous wounds, and is also very cruel.

Smaller animals such as orang-utans, monkeys and birds are also subjected to physical and psychological harm. The primates are beaten or starved. Trainers won’t beat parrots or other birds, but place them in a dark cage and underfeed them, inflicting psychological harm.

There is also the use of animals in commercial practices such as bear bile farming, which is cruel no matter what method is used. The abdominal cavity and gall bladder are punctured, and in the long term this leads to infection. Imagine what that would be like if it was a person.

The NGO Nature University is one of a number of groups that have spoken out against the use of wild animals in circus performances. Find out more here.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


Ban the use of animals in circuses! OR china will suffer terribly!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

So sad

So sad. This story nearly made me cry. I'm never going to a circus that uses animals.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

Diana Pandal

Stop this cruelty