by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
|For those who have always felt an
instinctive revulsion for the travelling menagerie, it might not seem altogether
surprising that cruelty and deprivation lurks behind all the razzmatazz and glitter of the
circus world. But I'm pleased to say that this book is not merely content with recounting
in abstract the suffering that these animals must endure in order to provide their human
audience with a short-lived thrill. Here, we also see the animals as individuals, and in
graphic detail, the shadowy enterprises, dealers and showmen who profit from their
A pair of baby elephants straining feverishly at the heavy chains which shackle them to the ground in a circus tent; ice-skating polar bears that must live most of their lives confined to boxes no more than a metre square; a giant panda - that most famous endangered species of all - trained to blow a trumpet and ride a motorbike. Haunting images such as these abound in William Johnsons book, The Rose-Tinted Menagerie.
As he so lucidly reveals, the true nature of those unfortunate creatures that must snarl, dance or mimic their human masters under the big top is as mocked today as it was when the circus first sprang to life in the amphitheatres of ancient Rome.
Epitomised by that endless tale of misfortune that lies behind the clown-like smile of the captive dolphin, we see how illusion has been crafted meticulously in order to convince the public that the performing circus animal is happy and content in its deprived surroundings. That deprivation, as William Johnson points out, is far more fundamental than is first suggested by the bare, cramped and squalid pools and cages to be seen in virtually every menagerie and oceanarium. The species they contain have been estranged from the myriad influences which shaped their natures and existence in the wild.
As a philosophical work that should become of major importance to the conservation movement, The Rose-Tinted Menagerie puts the exploitation of animals in circuses and oceanaria into the much broader context of global environmental destruction and humankind's ailing relationship with the planet.
On a journey through history, we see the evolution of that fearful anthropocentrism which afflicts the human race in our species' futile quest for supremacy over the Earth. As William Johnson suggests, it is perhaps inevitable that the fragmentation so evident in human society today is the direct legacy of our separation from Mother Nature. Indeed, it may well be surmised that speciesism, coupled with humanity's unwillingness to perceive the vital inter-relationships which compose a global ecology, has done more damage to the environment than any other single factor. By the same token, encouraging a holistic or all-embracing perception of the living Earth must be at the heart of humanity's awakening ecological awareness. In many respects, we must sweep away the outmoded ideas and institutions that still bind us to an environmentally-damaging past. That endangered species should still inhabit the beast wagons of travelling shows, that dolphins and whales should still be captured and carted around the world for exhibition is not only unconscionable in itself, but also serves to perpetuate an insidious utilitarian view of creation.
The Rose-Tinted Menagerie is an impressive contribution to the cause of conservation and animal welfare. I very much hope that it will play, as it deserves, a fundamental role in shaping a new ecological awareness.
THE ROSE-TINTED MENAGERIE World Copyright © 1990 William M. Johnson