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Should schools take pupils to see circuses with performing animals?

As a multidisciplinary activity, the circus encourages children to develop their creativity and to discover subjects such as physical education, art and language in an enjoyable way. However, to take children to see performing animals goes against the role of state education which, in France, is to “emphasise the importance of self-respect and the respect of others, of responsible behaviour that contributes to the well-being of the community, and the duty of each individual to help preserve fundamental values, schools being the guardians of such values” (Bulletin Officiel, special issue dated October 15th, 1998).

When violence is held up as an example

In France, memorandum n° 98-185 of September 9th, 1998 states that, given education’s role in encouraging international solidarity, teachers must make pupils aware of the notion of sustainable development, whereby economic growth must not be to the detriment of local populations or environmental protection, for the benefit of future generations.

The presentation of animals in captivity, not for the preservation of species but for amusement, contradicts schools’ duty to teach respect for the environment, as pupils are led to believe that the exploitation and captivity of animals for entertainment and profit is normal. Children should be made aware of the fragility and destruction of ecosystems, rather than exposed to the profit and “pleasure” that humans might derive from captive animals.

Bulletin Officel Spécial n°7 of August 26th, 1999 reiterates the importance of teaching pupils that human beings are part of the animal kingdom, although a number of characteristics differentiate humans from other species.

In a society in which violence is a growing problem and the recognition and respect of differences has yet to be fully achieved, to teach pupils in the classroom that animals are our “brothers” in the animal kingdom, and then take them to circuses where animals are dominated by Man, can only lead children to consider differences as a reason for exploitation and abuse. Once again, this goes against the role of state education. Children develop a strong relationship with animals: Laure Delvolve even refers to a “natural form of inter-species communication” in which the child sees the animal as his or her “little brother”. This theory finds support in the many children’s stories and fables that use animals as their central characters.

Anne Maille-Ubersfeld points out how children laugh at circus animals’ clumsy imitations of adult human behaviour, a situation with which they can identify. However, this is also an (unconscious?) means of showing children they are superior to the animal realm, which they can dominate and denature at will. Furthermore, the exotic nature of performing animals is a disturbing reflection of our colonialist past. Many nineteenth-century children’s stories present animals in unnatural roles, such as Mémoires d’un âne by La Comtesse de Ségur, in which a donkey is reduced to slavery as a vector for teaching children how to treat human slaves.

Human slavery and colonialism have (officially at least) been abolished, and yet circuses continue to showcase a regrettably neo-colonialist view of the world, in which exotic animals such as camels, elephants and lions are forced to submit to representatives of the Western world (both “tamers” and the audience). What lessons do children draw from the ethnocentric picture that circuses paint? Should schools be encouraging their pupils to watch such presentations? For One Voice, the answer is no. Teaching the wrong lessons

From a purely educational point of view, One Voice is extremely dubious as to the pedagogical value of the way animals are presented in menageries and circuses. Indeed, the mixing of species from different environments and countries (a hippopotamus from Ghana with an Asian elephant, a Siberian tiger with African lions, etc.), the unnatural postures they are forced to adopt (elephants standing on their hind legs, monkeys in pink dresses), in surroundings that in no way resemble their natural environment (lorry, circus ring, etc.), and the distorted animal-human relationship offer children a flawed vision of the animal world and its interactions.

This is why schools must stop exposing their pupils to such misleading representations and instead, as is their role, take additional steps to convey such positive values as respect and sharing and to teach children that differences are not a criterion for inequality. Lessons in ethics can only be effective when words are accompanied by deeds. Taking children to see circus animals is all the more unacceptable given the multitude of ways that now exist for us to discover animals in their natural environments. The notion of difference must not stop at race or sex, as this would be incoherent, but also encompass the question of species. Respect must know no boundaries.

Latest campaign news

Following your letters of support and that of members of parliament, Mrs. Catherine Trautman, France’s Minister of Culture, accepted One Voice’s request that authorities and circuses meet in order to introduce necessary legislation in this field. However, following a cabinet reshuffle Mrs. Trautman has been replaced by Mrs. Catherine Tasca. Mrs. Tasca has yet to express her position on this subject, and the future of the proposed debate. But the campaign continues to progress!

Franck Schrafstetter

Translation: Sandra Petch

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