Time we stood up for the performing animals who stood up for us

I loved the circus, really loved it. As a kid, it was one of the few flashes of true colour that came through in a life decidedly lived in black and white. They'd arrive in the Green a few hundred yards behind our house and from early morning, the ping ping ping of the tent pegs being hammered into the soft ground would shatter through the morning silence. By the time we'd come home from school for lunch, the tent flags would flutter above the trees and for a day or two, a little bit of magic would light up the dullness of the town. In some ways, the arrival of the circus was better than the circus itself.

And that night when we’d throng through the triangular door into the hard pews that snaked around the ring, and be mesmerised by exotic looking people performing daring acts. Sinewed women in tight fleshy leotards in the days when a Brazilian was actually someone from that country. Tanned men with large torsos having clowns hop up and down on their chest, there was even a strong man from Eastern Europe who could pull a car with his teeth across the ring.

Central to this excitement was the array of animals that we'd never seen before. Llamas, elephants, horses, tigers, lions, leopards, zebras — none of which were native to a small town in Mayo. They'd parade around the rings and thrill us with their ability to respond to the promptings of their masters.

It is only now looking back that I appreciate these these animals weren't just animals, but actors in a production to which they had not signed up. We knew not where they came from nor where they were going to end up. Our fling with them was the momentary interaction during which they came out, their ferocity tamed, their pride extinguished, their honour impugned as they performed a series of silly tricks for little travelled people who were wowed at seeing something they had not seen before. And when people are excited, enthralled, made full of wonder, they care not for the origins of what they are seeing. When we watched Leo the Lion snarl his way around the cages erected around the ring for our safety, if you looked deep into his eyes, there was a deadness, a void created by a life not roaming the Serengeti chasing down some juicy gazelle, but instead being traipsed around in a small smokey, but colourful van through the small towns of Ireland.

Next week, Galway will make a momentous decision of whether to allow circuses with animals to be staged in this town. The matter will be brought before Galway City Council by Cllr Pearse Flannery, and he is seeking support for this from the other councillors. It is hard to see any reason to oppose it.

The city and county are extremely fortunate to have professional and capable animals rights organisations such as the wonderful MADRA and GSPCA, the Galway Cat Rescue, Swan Rescue, donkey sanctuaries and some others, but even their considerable presence cannot stop the tide of abuse which our animals suffer in this city and county. Just a few weeks back, we read of one horrific case where the trust of animals to be cared was brutally shattered with horrific consequences.

Already steps are being taken to expedite this. In 2006 there were more than a hundred animals in seven circuses touring Ireland, often up to 10 months at a time, with several venues being visited every week.

Now there are only four circuses using animals in Ireland and the overall number of animals has decreased to 58 and Arts Council funding for circuses using animals has fallen from €247,000 to €103,000.

I don't want to deprive any child the wonder of the circus, the colour, the magic, but I'd like that wonder to be generated through the skill and creativity of humans who enter the rings as fully willing participants in a theatrical show. Galway is a welcoming place, inviting to all who come though the city gates, local or exotic.. It is a city that should aspire to protect its most vulnerable, whether they be human or creature. Circus animals deserve our protection. Let's hope the City Council acts wisely and back this motion to show that we love all animals, be they cat, lion, dog, or zebra.


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