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Circus! OMHG!

May 20, 2012

We went to Gifford’s Circus today.

There were ace jugglers Bibi and Bichu, amazing acrobats The Godfathers, veteran tap-dancing phenomenon Pat Bradford, and all kinds of other things. A joyful performing dog, an adorably tiny Shetland pony and, of course, Tweedy the clown. I loved Andromeda, the comedic and self-parodying goddess of the show.

I think last year’s was slightly better, but only because last year’s was so unbelievably good I don’t think anything could have topped it. Tweedy’s recreation of last year’s knife-throwing act and his effort on the trapeze were hilarious, but I kind of missed the real thing and I felt, a little petulantly, that my favourites from last year, Bibi and Bichu, did  too much jumping on and off horses and not enough juggling.

Which is not to say it wasn’t completely brilliant. I came away with hands sore from clapping and a voice tired from whooping and gasping and oo-ing and ah-ing. The shows here are finished, but the troupe will spend the rest of the summer touring and will not be so far away that I can’t go and see them again, later in the summer.

Well, now.

Regarding the use of animals in the circus – there are, I know, some who feel that circus animals are necessarily exploited and that seeing them perform is, at the least, distasteful.

I have some sympathy with that idea, although I don’t share it, quite. And last year one of the horses did seem upset during the finale, which took the shine off a little bit*. So I’m feeling the need to state a position.

(* For what it’s worth, I believe that particular horse has since been re-homed and is now happily working with autistic children.)

The stressed-out horse from last year was the only time I have seen something that made me feel anything but admiration for the Gifford’s animal performers. They are clearly well cared for and give every appearance of being happy in their work – and animals, unlike people, find it hard to lie about such things. They all evidently had good, trusting relationships with their human partners, and nothing they were asked to do looked unnatural, undignified or uncomfortable (except, maybe, the equine pirouette – but even that was much less unnatural than any half-decent dressage test, and the two horses involved seemed OK with it).

This year, all of the horses were calm and relaxed – indeed, Tom, the wee pony, looked like he was having a blast. The dog was spectacularly eager to the point of exuberance – the act was romping and playful. As for the doves – well, I have no idea how you go about training doves to perform, but it must involve lots of patience – and the doves were clearly comfortable perching on Andromeda and playing their part – except, perhaps, the one who decided to fly to the roof and watch the rest of the show from a vantage point well above the rest of us.

Is it exploitation? Well, maybe. It’s unpaid, and not necessarily every horse’s first career choice. But it’s no more exploitative than keeping fish as pets, or keeping chickens for eggs, or teaching your dog to roll over for a biscuit – and these circus animals probably get a great deal more intimacy, respect, attention and friendship from their human partners than almost any ordinary domesticated fish or dog or chicken, too.

So if I’m OK with the idea of animals as companions and producers, then I’m OK with the animals performing at Gifford’s Circus.


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