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  • The Welfare of Performing Animals: A Historical Perspective by David A. H. Wilson
  • Elizabeth Tyson (bio)
The Welfare of Performing Animals: A Historical Perspective. By David A. H. Wilson. (Heidelberg, Germany: Springer, 2015. Animal Welfare Series. 278 + xvi pp. with illustrations. Hardback. £126. ISBN: 978-3662458334.)

David Wilson explores the history of the use and treatment of animals in performance with a view to considering their impact upon animal welfare. While the majority of the book focuses upon the use of animals in performance in Britain over the past 100–150 years, he begins with a brief history of animal performance dating back to the classical era. As well as touching upon the oft-cited public slaughter of animals (and humans held in servitude) in the amphitheaters during these historical periods, he also documents the use animals in festivals, parades, and performances; they are exhibits that would not look out of place in the shows currently being promoted in the animal circuses still operating today.

The book has a strong focus upon the lobbying process which led to, and followed, the introduction of the U.K.'s Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925, a statute which started life as a proposal to prohibit the use of animals in performance (p. 46) but which, by the time it was enacted, required "no more than registration . . . and restricted inspection" (p. 82) and was decried at the time by those concerned over the cruel treatment of animals in performance as ineffective (p. 181). The select committee charged with the issue heard evidence from both sides of the performing animal debate; this evidence forms a large part of the book's content. The evidence itself consists of a somewhat overwhelming array of accusations of animal cruelty on the part of those seeking prohibition and rebuttals to those accusations by those who wished for the practice to continue. The result is a sense of a cyclical "tit-for-tat" argument that does not appear to progress to any form of conclusion, nor decisive action on the part of the government. What is perhaps most frustrating in reading this work—certainly from my perspective as an advocate who has been directly involved in work on this issue in the United Kingdom for a number of years—is that the arguments on both sides remain the same today as they did in the late 1800s, while the practice itself remains legal (although diminished in scale).

A horrifying list of abuses are outlined throughout the ages, with complaints including ponies and dogs being whipped (p. 150), horses "being trained with clubs" (p. 153), and the declawing and defanging of big cats (p. 156). A primary concern raised repeatedly over the last century is that free-living animals, in particular, cannot be trained to submit to a person's will through [End Page 223] kindness, but that cruelty is necessary in order to ensure compliance (Chapter 4.3). In addition, the confined accommodation and regular transportation was of great concern to early animal advocates (Chapter 4.1).

Those defending the use of animals in performance claimed that training of animals could only be carried out using kindness (Chapter 4.3), that those who had invested heavily in animals (in both time and resources) would be foolish to mistreat them, and that those who raised concerns over the issue were ill-informed "sob-stuffed cranks . . . comprised mainly of bureaucratic men and neurotic women" (p. 69). Where admission was made that cruelty within the industry existed, this was blamed on "cruel foreigners" (p. 91) and the suggestion was also made that "fanatics" opposed to the use of animals in performance harmed animals themselves in an attempt to discredit the industry. One article suggested that painting the animal trainers in a bad light also helped the charitable organizations opposing their trade to gain financial support. It stated, after horses belonging to a performer died from arsenic poisoning, that "we believe that our animal trainers have been sadly maligned by these subscription chasers" (p. 69).

While these arguments were first laid before the select committee in the 1920s, one would have difficulty differentiating between them and those still being used today on...


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