Down to Earth

Circus animals: Life after stardom?

French circuses are currently home to some 700 wild animals.
French circuses are currently home to some 700 wild animals. © AFP
By: Mairead DUNDAS Follow | Guillaume BRUNET | Antonia KERRIGAN | Marie-Claire IDE | Julia GUGGENHEIM | Valérie DEKIMPE
10 min

French circus workers are warning that a looming ban on the use of wild animals in travelling shows would see their industry brought to its knees. It also raises questions for their star performers. Today there are 700 wild animals in the country's circuses, including 500 big cats. What does their future look like after life on the stage? The Down to Earth team takes a closer look.

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A 'geno-circus'?

''For me, what's going to happen is genocide. We call it geno-circus. Our animals are going to die but also a whole profession," laments William Kerwich, director of Cirque Royal. His family has already been suffering from a year of cancelled shows due to the health crisis.

Cirque Royal features a range of wild animals including lions, tigers, parrots, wallabies and a hippopotamus, all of them born in captivity. ''These animals are close to humans, they don't suffer from any form of enclosure and they cannot be put back into the wild. It's not possible,'' Kerwich explains.

In January Kerwich and fellow circus workers protested in the French capital, accusing the government of placing unfair pressure on their industry. He describes it as a witch hunt: ''It's easier to kill the circus world than to attack bullfighting, for example.''

Five-star retirement home

For the moment, the French government hasn't outlined an official timeline for the ban or a programme to rehome the impacted animals.

Patrick Violas, founder of Zoo Refuge La Tanière, says his site could accept a few of the lions and tigers, for example, but certainly not all.

His zoo-refuge is a new concept, a place for animals with no other solution.

''Many of the animals that arrive here have been seized, or are retired from the circus, animals that individuals have abandoned, animals from laboratories, primates," he explains. ''Here we help the animals physically and administratively and our goal is to find them a new home as often as possible''.

Violas has invested his own personal fortune, earned through previous success in the telecommunications business, to create La Tanière. Today it is closed to the public due to Covid-19 but eventually, paying visitors should compensate for the cost of caring for the animals.

However, if he were to welcome additional animals in the wake of the new laws, he would need state funding to buy more land and build larger structures.

''No one has the possibility to receive 500 or 600 wild animals... there are a lot of animals to recover and there will be more and more with everything that is happening,'' Violas concludes.

Returning animals to the wild?

In 2019, the NGO Rewild announced an ambitious and controversial project: buy a zoo and release the animals inside.

With the help of donations through crowdfunding, Lamya Essemlali and her team bought the Pont Scorff zoo in Brittany. The site is permanently closed to visitors. 

''Commercial exploitation of wild, captive animals is a thing of the past. I honestly think that in twenty years or so, everyone will be shocked to see this," Essemlali insists.

Today Rewild is identifying animals inside the zoo, many from Africa, which are fit to be released, first in sanctuaries and eventually the wild. Abari, the hippopotamus, may be enduring his last winter in Brittany.

Essemlali regrets that not all wild animals can be sent back to their origins. For example, white tigers are the result of inbreeding during captivity and don't exist naturally in the wild.

But for the others, she says: "We have to think about a way out for these animals... we must give them this chance.''

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