Activists call for ban on performing animals in Ukraine’s circuses

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Dogs perform with their trainers during the rehearsal at Ukraine's National Circus on April 12.
Photo by Volodymyr Petrov

Read about the April 15 animal rights rally here 

An incident in which a lioness was shot after the animal escaped from a private circus has highlighted the changing attitudes in Ukraine to the acceptability of animals being used as circus entertainment.

The incident happened in Pryluky, a city of 57,000 people in Chernihiv Oblast, 150 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, at around midnight on March 15, when the Kobzov private circus was on tour.

The lioness got out of her unlocked cage, attacked a circus worker, and jumped a fence to escape into the city. Since the staff of the 20-year-old circus didn’t have tranquilizers or any other special means to subdue the animal, police brought in a hunter to shoot the lioness dead.

Planned protest

The shooting of the animal has shocked Ukrainian animal rights activists.

With the Kobzov circus planning to celebrate World Circus Day on April 15 with a procession in the center of Kyiv – from Taras Shevchenko Park to Mykhailivska Square,  Ukrainian animal rights activists plan to gather at 12 p.m. in the same park to protest against circuses that still use animals in their shows.

Oleksandr Todorchuk is one of the activists behind the planned protest. Before launching the animal rights initiative UAnimals a year ago, he wasn’t sure if Ukrainian society cared much about animal rights. However, he found out that only 1 percent of Ukrainians supported animal shows in circuses, according to the poll by the international research company GfK Ukraine.

“Everyone thought people wouldn’t support the idea (of making circuses animal-free) and that’s why kept silent. But it turned out they do,” Todorchuk told the Kyiv Post.

UAnimals has previously organized a couple of rallies, and posted videos and pictures, showing the conditions in which the animals in the Kyiv-based National Circus of Ukraine live. The footage, published by the activists last summer, revealed that circus animals live in small cages with little space to move around.

Small cages

A Kyiv Post reporter visited Ukraine’s National Circus on April 12 to check if the conditions are still the same.

It turned out that the animals do spend most of their days in small cages.

The bears have two hours of rehearsal every day. The rest of the time they spend in their enclosures. There is a single large enclosure, which the bears get to use in turn, their trainer Yuriy Drobot says. While one of the four bears gets to stretch and walk about, the other three are waiting in small cages that are not much bigger than they are themselves.

The trainer said the reason why bears live in such conditions is a lack of space. But he also said that that animals don’t need much space as they get tired after rehearsal and go to sleep. As he said this, the bears were beating against the walls of the cages and didn’t seem to be tired at all.

These four bears have been on tour in the National Circus of Ukraine and have lived in these conditions for three months.

Circus artists and trainers completely reject all accusations of cruelty, insisting that they love animals and take care of them. They also claim that an animal would never do tricks if it were maltreated, and it’s impossible to force it to do things it doesn’t want to do.

National Circus of Ukraine dog trainer Maryna Novoselova says the only right way to train animals is to use their own natural behavior.

“We usually watch animals fooling around, notice what they like to do, and use it in shows,” she said.

Circus staff also say they haven’t deprived the animals of their freedom.

“We don’t catch animals somewhere in Africa. They can perform only if they are the fourth generation born in captivity,” Novoselova said.

But Todorchuk said this claim was absurd.

“It’s like saying we’ve tortured three generations, so it’s OK to torture another one,” he told the Kyiv Post.

Making a noise

Ludmyla Shevchenko, the general director of the National Circus of Ukraine, who used to train lions and tigers, says the idea of banning circuses from using animals is nonsense. She said animals live half as long in the wild than in circuses and zoos, especially rare species and albinos, which struggle to survive in the wild.

Even though there are successful cases of the circuses that don’t have performing animals, like Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, Shevchenko doesn’t see this working in Ukraine.

“Cirque du Soleil is not a real circus. I support traditional ones,” she said.

Nevertheless, there are moves afoot in the Ukrainian legislature to ban the use of performing animals in Ukrainian circuses by law. Two groups of lawmakers in October 2016 filed two draft laws in Verkhovna Rada – one forbids the use of animals in traveling circuses, the other one forbids it in all circuses.

However, the laws have not yet made it onto the parliamentary agenda for debate.

In order to speed up the process, UAnimals has started a social media campaign. They already have 113,000 subscribers on Facebook and 10,000 people who say they will protest on April 15.

Todorchuk believes that the rally will make people pay attention to the initiative and push the authorities to act.

“Those that make the louder noise will be heard,” he said.

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