From animal-objet to sentient being

We see animals mostly as objects at our disposal, to eat, wear, experiment on or for entertainment.

Our entire social structure revolves around this concept of the utilitarian animal rather than acknowledging the animal as an individual with its own, independent existence. The circus is the reflection of this pernicious relationship between human and animal.

The Treaty of Amsterdam recognises the animal as a "sentient being" and yet animals in circuses are not treated as such. Indeed, the expression "circus animals" is frequently used to refer to animals in circuses, as though certain species were naturally disposed towards a life in the ring. The animal's physical aspect is exploited to assert the "superiority" of whoever appears to dominate it. Removed from its natural environment, the animal becomes no more than a mirror image of itself. It becomes a cliché, not a sentient being in its environment with its own specific needs. Just as intensively-farmed pigs no longer have any use for their snout or trotters, the tusks and trunk of an elephant in a circus are entirely cosmetic. They serve no useful purpose in an environment in which the animal's physiology is completely ignored. This negation is particularly evident in the unnatural postures which elephants are forced to adopt in the ring. An elephant that is forced into a seated position or to balance on two legs develops painful joints and other pathologies that can prove fatal. Despite this, circus professionals have, for decades, sought new and more exaggerated ways to "bend" the animal's nature to their desires.

This annihilation of animals as individuals is also evident in the cages used to transport them. The social group is split up or inexistent, the animal has no flight distance, and space and movement are severely restricted in a cage that measures three to four square metres. The animal's most basic physiological needs are denied in order to optimise space and facilitate handling.

An animal that is unable to perform species-typical behaviour (social, sexual, locomotory, feeding, etc.) develops atypical behaviour which specialists describe as symptomatic of an absence of well-being and even chronic suffering. However, and despite growing public indignation, it seems neither public authorities nor circus professionals intend questioning the use of animals in circuses, as this would mean reconsidering the animal's very status by acknowledging that it has its own existence. It would mean accepting that the animal no longer occupies the position of inferiority that we have imposed on it for centuries, and consequently stepping down from our self-proclaimed position of superiority over the rest of the animal realm.

Without questioning the specificity of humankind, we believe that the value, needs and specificities of every species with which we live must be acknowledged. We must try to redefine our relationship with animals. We must stop seeing the animal in terms of something we can use - the animal-object - and move towards a new understanding of the animal as a sentient being.

Franck Schrafstetter, june 2008.