Less than a generation ago, few parents anywhere in the world would have thought twice about taking their children to the big top when the circus came to town. Families once thrilled at the sight of lions, tigers and elephants performing extraordinary feats and bending to the will of a human tamer. Today, however, the thought of wild animals being exploited for our entertainment is, for many people, abhorrent. In an era in which human beings are increasingly conscious of their individual impact upon, and responsibilities towards, the planet and their fellow creatures, the outpouring of disquiet over the use of lions in a circus performing in Dubai is both welcome and inevitable.
The circus has vigorously defended its use of lions, suggesting that protesters should "mind their own business". At best, this is a naive response from an organisation on the wrong side of history, defending an increasingly indefensible position. In the modern world, animal welfare is very much everyone's business. Empty seats and people voting with their feet by staying away will make their own incontestable case. In the US last year, falling ticket sales and protests from animal rights groups forced Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus out of business after 146 years.
Although the use of animals in circuses is still legally permitted in the majority of countries around the world, the determination of the UAE government to crack down on the illegal ownership of exotic pets shows that animal welfare is very much on the radar in the UAE. But with or without legislation, there is now widespread recognition globally that wild animals belong in only one place – the wild. One of the UAE's largest ticket-selling platforms is to be lauded for taking a moral stance in the debate over the Latino Circus's use of white African lions in its show. It has condemned the use of animals as unethical and is considering cutting ties with the circus.
Circuses have shown they can thrive without animals, relying instead on astonishing displays of skill by human dancers, acrobats and jugglers. Cirque du Soleil is today the largest theatrical company in the world but does not feature animals. Times and attitudes change. The objections in the UAE acknowledge that forcing wild animals to perform for our amusement is a cruel anachronism that demeans them and diminishes our humanity.