January 21, 2020
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The Freedom Of A Cage

Circus owners and trainers claim that moves to take away their animals are the real cruel acts

The Freedom Of A Cage

She’s a cute, spoilt three-year-old. But Sundari, a tigon cub, is also at the centre of a raging custody battle between the government and the circus she belongs to. Rejected at birth by her mother, Sundari was raised by Bhim Bahadur Lama and his wife, Beena, in their tent in the Empire circus. "Apart from breast-feeding her, Beena did everything a mother could do for her," recalls Lama as a playful Sundari-offspring of an accidental mating between a tigress and a lion-reaches her paws out of her cage and turns over on her back, begging for a tickle.

Despite her caring foster parents, Sundari’s days at the circus may be numbered. And she’s not the only one. At stake is the future of about 99 other tigers, 256 lions, 22 bears, 12 panthers and 15 monkeys (department of animal welfare figures) who’ve spent their lives performing in Indian circuses. The danger: the government’s plan to move the Delhi high court asking all circuses to hand over their animals to be housed in specially-built zoo annexes. The moving spirit behind this unusual official zeal to "rescue" circus animals is animal rights crusader Maneka Gandhi. Having succeeded in combining her charge as minister for social justice with the department of animal welfare within months of joining Vajpayee’s ministry, Maneka’s first problem was to find a place to house these animals. After the already-overcrowded zoos refused, Maneka prevailed upon the environment and forests ministry to cough up Rs 6 crore to build "rescue centres" for the animals. And if the Delhi high court agrees, these animals may soon be shifting from the ring to the reluctant custody of zoo keepers, bringing down the curtains on a furiously-fought battle between the government and circus owners for their custody.

The trouble began in 1991, when the environment ministry, then headed by Maneka, issued a notification under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, banning circuses from exhibiting or performing with bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and dogs (substituted five months later with lions). For circuses, already hit by mounting costs and low audiences, this meant folding up their tents for good, throwing over 20,000 workers out of work in the process.

Animals seized from mobile zoos have died unattended in kanpur, lucknow zoos.

Explains Akhtar Hussain, owner of the Empire Circus, "Take away the animals and there’s nothing left of the circus. It’ll be like chopping off three of my fingers." The 42-year-old has been travelling with the circus ever since he dropped out of school. "How can I eat? What happens to the 350 people I employ?" he asks. Owners are also riled by charges that they ill-treat their animals. "Do you think I’d dare to enter their enclosure if I ill-treated them?" asks Lama, a ringmaster who’s spent the last 20 years raising and training lions and tigers. "How’ll they live in these rescue centres with lions or tigers from other circuses? They’ll kill each other in no time," he says.

But neither the government, nor the expert committee set up in 1991 to reconsider the notification is impressed by these arguments. The committee had concluded that the ban was justified since the unnatural tricks the animals are forced to perform are not "useful to society except as entertainment and spectacle". It also said that the constant transportation of animals in cramped cages was a cruel practice. The committee’s report also included a letter from the Animal Welfare Board of India claiming that the animals "are subjected to electric whips, beating, starvation and the like. "

However, other specialists like spca member and Chennai vet, Dr M.S. Gopal, disagree. Far from abusing their animals, he says, circus owners and trainers lavish the animals with care and attention. "It’s the only forum where even large animals, commonly considered dangerous, permit themselves to be handled by human beings and have a close affinity with them." Asserting that wild allegations were being levelled against circuses, Gopal claims that none of the committee members spent "any length of time with any circus, its owners or trainers." Gopal wrote a letter to the committee where he dwelt at length on the diet, medical treatment and hygiene of circus animals. "Circuses mostly have captivity-born animals who are fully conditioned and used to travelling. No owner or trainer permits an animal to be subjected to any harm," he concluded.

The Empire Circus, for instance, has not only provided aircoolers and fans and an overhead shelter for its 17 tigers and 13 lions, but had even dug a makeshift swimming pool for them when the circus was in Jaipur a few summers ago. Apart from the two specialist vets, Sanjivan Roy and G.L. Ghosh, who’re flown in regularly from Calcutta, there’s always a team of workers like Lama and his colleagues who tend to their animals round-the-clock.

Work in the circus usually begins at 5 am, when workers clean and disinfect the cages and also bathe and exercise the animals. For Lama, this care comes naturally. "If we give them electric shocks, do you think I’d dare to thrust my head into a lion’s jaws three shows a day?" he queries while a lion playfully nibbles his fingers. This particular lion was born in the circus, like the rest of the lions and tigers now resting after their midday meal-450 kg of raw buffalo meat-delivered in carefully weighed portions at 12 noon sharp.

Nobody in Empire Circus quite remembers when a lion or tiger was last bought for training. The nine tigers the Empire owned in 1991 had become 20 in six years. Other circuses have had similar success with their breeding. Nataraj Circus, for instance, had four tigers in ‘91 and in six years they’d risen to 10. Similarly, Gemini’s tiger population went up in the same period from two to six, Olympic’s from nine to 17, Famous’ from five to 19, Great Royal Circus from four to 14 and Jumbo from nine to 14. Interestingly, the 100 lions in the circuses, almost all second or third-generation circus animals, exceed the total population of lions in zoos (83).

Circus owners also argue that sending their animals to rescue centres will be a greater cruelty. "Look at the animals the government seized from mobile zoos some years ago," points out Empire manager K.G. Menon. "They were left in Kanpur and Lucknow zoos in the very cages they were brought in, half of them died as nobody in the zoo bothered about them." There’s also a high maintenance cost: feeding one tiger or lion means a yearly bill of Rs 3-5 lakh, which is why Maneka Gandhi had to press the ministry to sanction an additional Rs 4 crore a year for the upkeep of her rescue centres.

"It was hasty to seize the animals before having a place to house them," admits B.M. Arora, Central Zoo Authority (CZA) member and former director of the Delhi zoo. Arora avers that circus owners and trainers are better animal-care experts than zoo-keepers. "The population of animals is also often fudged to hide the high mortality in zoos," he says. Circuses also score over zoos, as he bluntly points out, because the former "have more to lose if their animals die."

As Empire’s Menon remarks: "We, who look after these animals better than our own children, are labelled abusers and those who want to lodge them in cages without adequate care or food call themselves champions of animal rights." For Sundari and many others like her, that might indeed be beastly justice.

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