What would Virginia McKenna do?

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I know I started this blog with the intention to try to see the funny side of things when I find myself overwhelmed by Life.  But sometimes there simply isn’t a funny side.

A few weeks ago, when I was still occupied with plumbing issues in France, I’d driven into town to buy some essential hardware.  But as I reached my main market town, and turned right at the roundabout, to make my way to the DIY shop, my heart sank.  Opposite McDonalds, in a disused supermarket allotment, a circus was being set up.

There were scarlet wagons, jauntily painted with grotesque faces of clowns, and the snarling faces of lions and tigers.  There was a red and white striped Big Top with “Entrée” emblazoned enticingly across the entrance.  There was a van fitted with loudhailers, just setting off to tour the town, the driver holding a microphone up to his mouth as his disembodied voice blared out over hurdy-gurdy music, extolling the wonders of the circus.

“Visitez le cirque!  Venez voir des lions, des tigres blancs rares, les chameaux de Mongolie…

Seulement 7 € pour les enfants! Venez tout le monde!  Le spectacle commence le samedi…”

As I turned into the parking lot, I noticed the unmistakable form of a male lion standing in one of the caged wagons.

Feeling quite sick, I parked my car and went into the DIY store, passing posters and billboards advertising the circus on my way in.  I grabbed a trolley and pushed it up and down the aisles in the shop, gazing absent-mindedly at the shelves, but thinking all the time about that lion.

I’d recently read Virginia McKenna’s memoir, The Life in my Years, and greatly admire this brave woman, who for years has campaigned to free animals from zoos – ever since she starred with her husband, Bill Travers, in the 1960s screen classic Born Free.  To have had the courage to go into some of the zoos she’s visited across the world, and to bear witness to horrendous acts of cruelty to animals, and then to actually do something about it, takes huge strength of character.  So, as I trundled aimlessly around the plumbing department, trying to remember what I was even there for, I found myself asking – what would Virginia do about the circus?

What she wouldn’t do, I knew, was duck away from it all, hoping it would just go away.

I left the shop, and walked across the road, towards the supermarket compound.  A mother and her small daughter were standing close to the lion’s cage – much closer than they should have been, although they wouldn’t necessarily have realised how antagonistic it would have been to the caged big cat.  I walked over to a circus worker, occupied with unhitching a trailer and asked him if I was free to walk around?  “Bien sur,” he barely looked up at me.  And take photographs?  I asked. “Pourquoi pas?”

Why not, indeed?

It was heartbreaking.  Not only was there ‘my’ lion, who – it turned out, shared his 4×2 metre cage with a lioness – there were about eight other big cats.  There was a red tiger, and the promised white one.  There were more lions and lionesses and a pure white youngster – not much more than a cub and, I’ve no doubt, one of the very rare gene pool of white lions from South Africa.  She was probably barely a year old.  One of the posters I’d seen showed a black leopard, so I wouldn’t have been surprised if there’d been one lurking in the shadows, but my explorations were stopped short as a tractor roared up behind me, while I was taking photos of Bactrian camels standing forlornly in a roped-off section of the tarmac car park.  I thought I was going to be run over.

I turned to see the driver glowering at me.  He cut his engine.  “Madame,” he roared – ever so politely, “N’avez-vous pas vu les panneaux? Il est interdit de prendre des photos!”

I apologised, for I hadn’t noticed any signs, but I pointed out Trailer-man who had given me permission to take photos.  Tractor-man grunted and left me alone, but then I saw the signboards – not only on the lions’ cages, but even on the empty cages where the camels were evidently cooped up for the drives between towns.

DO NOT TOUCH

DO NOT GIVE FOOD

TO THE ANIMALS

PHOTOGRAPHS

FORBIDDEN

Why?  If people were going to ooh and ah at the spectacle of lions jumping through flaming hoops, surely taking a photo of the animals in their cages wasn’t breaking any laws?  It was patently obvious the cages were far too small for any captive creature – but making an animal jump through a ring of fire is no more excusable.

I’d had enough.  I came away, wondering what my next step should be.

I began by looking up circuses on the internet.  Coincidentally, only ten days earlier it had been reported by the Born Free Foundation that the UK Government had agreed draft registration being put in place to ensure that the use of wild animals in circuses in the United Kingdom will cease by 2015.  But, in the European Union, I learned, there is no legislation concerning the use of wild animals in circuses – it is left up to the member states to decide.  If you can believe all you read online, apparently Greece and Austria have already taken steps to outlaw wild animals in circuses.  But that’s all. (BRAVO! Greece and Austria!)

I decided I needed to go back, and watch, from a distance, the goings-on at the circus.  First of all I persuaded two friends, Anne (I bet not many people can call on the help of a Bond girl in times of crisis.  I can!) and Linda, to accompany me on a drive-by, while I tried to take more pictures of the place.  We were rather like three covert operators (not!) as Anne brought traffic to a standstill on the roundabout while I hung out the window trying – and failing – to get shots of the white tiger.  But I got pictures of the cages, showing what cramped spaces the animals were confined to.  Mission accomplished, and they left me – Linda avowing she was off to find out who in the EU we needed to petition to end wild animals in circuses.  Meanwhile, I bought a café and frites from McDonalds and remained in the car park to continue casing the joint…  Yves had lent me his binoculars for spying, but I didn’t really need them.  Which was just as well as, while I’d been provisioning my stakeout, a gendarme had materialised and was standing on the kerb, watching the circus.  I half-wondered whether he’d had a complaint about three female special agents causing havoc on the roundabout.  So I kept my head down.

It’s early days, but I hope we’ll get a petition going.  In the meantime, I’ve written a small piece about the circus, to bring people’s attention to the fact that astoundingly in these ‘enlightened times’ of the 21st Century, wild animals are still being exploited – horribly – in circuses.  And most of these species – lions, tigers, elephants, bears – are listed on the Convention of International Trade in Exotic Species (CITES) Appendix 1 – in danger of extinction.  My story is being broadcast in the UK on the BBC Radio 4 programme FROM OUR OWN CORRESPONDENT, today, 4th July, at 11 am – in case any of you want to listen.  If you’re not in England, you can “Listen Live” online at 1000 GMT, or “Listen Again” from a few hours later once it is uploaded onto the BBC website.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0368kp4

Thanks for reading, and watch this space for news of a petition…

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8 comments on “What would Virginia McKenna do?

  1. Sue says:

    Dear Tash,
    Another beautifully written article and so moving. Please get a petition going and I will make everyone I know sign it. I know how much you love lions, this must have been horrendous for you.
    I must get the Virginia McKenna book, she sounds amazing.

  2. Franca Ross says:

    Oh Tash, how awful it must have been – soul destroying. Those poor poor animals. People are so bloody ignorant it makes my blood boil. You are on Facebook, as your friend Sue said, get a petition going and I too will get my friends and their friends to sign it. I am quite sure if the Born Free Foundation get tot hear about it they will try and do something. I will try and post your article on Facebook in the meantime, Love Franca x

  3. Patsy says:

    Ha! – I knew before reading the name that Linda would be one of your willing spies. Let me know when to come visit you in the Nogent prison.

    Well done; keep up the good work for this worthy cause. We’re celebrating America’s freedom today; let’s hope we’ll be celebrating that of the circus animals soon. Cheers.

  4. Hiya everyone – thanks so much for reading. Apparently the BBC are also going to put the transcript of my radio piece, plus photos, on their magazine website tomorrow so I’ll paste the link here – when I get it – in case you want to see…. I’ve been in touch with Born Free Foundation on the circus issue and have tons of stuff to read, and so will get something going at some point to try to get more people clamouring for this horrible practice to be stopped. Thanks for the FB postings – I haven’t been up on it yet. But it’s been tweeted, and at least one person I know has commented, so hopefully word will get around slowly…

    Love to you all xx

  5. And – ps Pasty – if you come to visit us in Nogent’s jailhouse, please remember I’m a vegetarian!

  6. Linda Laddin says:

    Hi, Natasha, I just heard your BBC piece – really excellent and very moving. I spoke with PAWS when in the US and will follow up with more info on how to petition the EU. XX, Linda

  7. Tegan Newman says:

    A very important blog post Tash….thanks for sharing it and I’ll try and find your Radio programme online x

  8. tonymotu says:

    Bravo, Tash!
    I thought I had left a comment a few days ago, but I don’t see it, so I’ll try to re-create. I had no idea that some countries were already on board with some legislation to take care of this. It must be heart-breaking for you in particular, who are so used to seeing these magnificent cats and other animals wild and free. We have trouble putting our African Grey, Motu, in her cage, which we only do for her own safety at night, or if we are away from the house for a while. She roams around the house at will, flies if she wants, and generally rules the joint. So we understand how terrible it must be for one such as a lion to be in such a tiny space.
    Loved your broadcast, not just the content, but it was good to hear your lovely, so English (or is it Kenyan?) voice. Looks like a new career there.

    Tony

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