We were not sure what to expect, but the use of wild animals on the poster made us wonder just how far France's animal rights were behind England's. In 2012, could animals really still be exploited for this kind of entertainment?
The big top appeared overnight in a green in front of the local church. Grazing on the grass beside the tent prior to showtime was a zebra, two camels, a donkey, a bison, a llama, a horse and a pony. We were amazed that we could approach these animals, touch them and stand next to them without any restrictions. In the UK we got shouted at by a zookeeper at West Mids Safari Park for trying to stroke a zebra because they bite!
In addition to these animals, there was a series of small cages on wheels in which a family of lions were housed. They were a real draw for the crowds who gathered around to see them. A spectacular male lion was in a very small cage next to a beautiful lioness and her two young cubs. There was nothing more than a small metal barrier between us and them. I could literally touch the nose of the young cub who was snoozing with his face pressed against the bars.
They let out the occasional guttural roar, but mostly just looked bored, unable to do anything other than sit and stare at the bars that enclosed them. It was quite heartbreaking. These lions were not used in the show itself so I doubt if they often get to leave their travelling prisons on wheels.
The circus itself was a strange affair. The French locals were enthralled with it all, whilst we sat there with horrified looks on our faces. The basic premise of the show was that animals were brought into the small circular ring and made to run round and round. The finale of each section involved a box being brought into the centre of the ring, and the animal being made to put its front feet on it and cross its legs in what looked like an unnatural movement. Seeing a zebra made to 'entertain' the audience in this demeaning manner was really upsetting.
At one point, two camels were made to gallop around the ring together. The clumsy gait of the two beasts caused their legs to entangle and both animals fell over. A swift whipping from the ringmaster had them clamber back onto their feet, that were more suited to running on sand than damp grass.
Three huge snakes were brought out into the ring. One was wrapped around a woman who then walked around encouraging children to stroke the snake. I could see its skin was rough and sloughing off in irregular clumps from over exuberant petting by excitable young children.
A magic act saw a magician pull rabbits from circular boxes. Terrified, half crushed, trembling and bedraggled bunnies were wrenched from secret compartments in tubes to the delight of the French crowd. I could not believe that they still used animals in such a way. I can only imagine how many rabbits were injured during this act over the year.
We were all really shocked at how far the French are behind the UK's policy on animal rights. The animals were all clearly well loved by the circus folk, and this is after all their livelihood. But the conditions that these animals were forced to live in, travelling from town to town and being made to perform demeaning tricks, is just something that should not be allowed. The animals were magnificent and it was so sad to know that they will never know freedom of any kind. After the shows the animals are bundled back into their tiny cages ready to move onto the next town. A llama, a donkey and a pony all shared one cramped small cage. The horse had to stand diagonally just to fit into its living area. The sight of the beautiful exotic zebra in its tatty old cage upset me the most.
Coming away from this 'experience' made me glad that this isn't something that occurs in England anymore. I do still remember the days of Billy Smart's Circus, where animals such as elephants were used to perform for the entertainment of the circus crowd. I also remember the spider monkeys wearing baby clothes that we were photographed with on holiday as children. I recall the PG chimps who dressed and acted like humans for their advertising campaign. It wasn't that long ago. I just hope that the countries who still use wild animals in demeaning ways will soon come to realise that there is no place for this in the 21st century. We need to respect animals and strive to protect them, conserve them and prevent their exploitation.