Animals Aren’t Property: Circus Edition

Usually, it’s upsetting to see a person’s livelihood attacked and destroyed by government bureaucrats. In the case of Thomas Chipperfield, it’s not so bad. Chipperfield is one in a long line of family members extending back many generations who’s made his living in the circus. The Chipperfield family takes their show on the road across the United Kingdom, and like many other traveling circuses, they have a wide array of animal “acts” including dogs, cats, horses and birds. Thomas Chipperfield’s own specialty within his family’s business is the taming of big cats. That may all be coming to an end soon, as circuses are more and more seen for precisely what they are — the subjugation and exploitation of animals.

Governments, lagging far behind the will of their constituents (as is always the case), are finally getting around to recognizing the wickedness of the circus. Bans on the use of wild animals in circuses are spreading worldwide, with some countries having enacted nationwide injunctions, and others, like the US, outlawing wild animal circuses on state and local levels.  The Chipperfields were forced to cancel an upcoming event in Wales after British MP Christina Rees and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals urged local animal lovers to speak out. Yet another example of social pressure (albeit by a politico in her private capacity) beating the state to the punch.

Thomas Chipperfield laments the possible end to his family’s “way of life.” When asked about the rampant abuse and torture of animals enslaved in circuses, Chipperfield says he can only speak for himself, denying the use of any inhumane treatment in his own circus, and stating that the animals are his “family and friends, [they] show me love and loyalty.” Chipperfield sounds a little like the kinder, gentler 19th century urban slaveowner who justified his actions by drawing distinctions between himself and his harsher plantation counterparts.

Unfortunately, Thomas Chipperfield is strikingly similar to many of the more moderate animal rights activists battling him. Both fail to question the important underlying assumptions in animal issues: Captivity, confinement and ownership. It’s not that the conditions of animal confinement need improvement; it’s that animal confinement must come to an end. When the boundaries of animal debate stay within the cozy confines of whether captive animals are being treated and fed well, the barbaric institution of human domination over animals is allowed to thrive.

That’s why the animal welfarist’s position, while often accomplishing good and important ends, will never acheive animal liberation by itself. It fails to address the underlying evil — that of animals’ status as nothing more than human property. Though most humans today acknowledge they owe animals certain moral obligations, their actions (or lack thereof) say the exact opposite. While humans increasingly recognize the unnecessary pain and suffering inflicted on animals, they nonetheless continue to use animals as the means to indulge in numerous grotesque pleasures in their own personal lives.

Governments’ handling of animal issues exemplifies the weakness of welfarist reforms. Never comfortable staking out a position that doesn’t advance their own power, politicians are content to simply put lipstick on animal issues. By addressing only the conditions of animal confinement, governments keep animal issues as mere topics for parliamentary reports and congressional hearings in which human “experts” quibble over whether there’s enough hay in the elephant cage. Occasionally they go so far as to prevent the circus from coming to town, but that’s about as deep as their concern goes.

Contrary to the animal welfarist position, the more radical, abolitionist approach seeks to smash the allowable window of debate and free animals from their confines. Animals don’t deserve property status alongside our televisions and china sets. They require legal recognition as sentient beings with their own complex lives, relationships, wants and needs. It’s time for animal rights activists to move beyond debating the dimensions of the cage and to start destroying the cages altogether. That’s what animals deserve.

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