As Sabia the camel nuzzles happily against Petra Jackson the strong bond between animal and human is plain to see.
But it is a bond that is threatened by Government plans to ban animals such as Sabia from circuses in this country, according to Petra, the ringmaster of Circus Mondao.
With claims that circus animals live an unnatural life and are often mistreated, she insists that the animals at Circus Mondeo are loved and cared for.
From the way the circuses animals react to her and to her colleague Carol Macmanus it is clear they are relaxed and comfortable in their presence – but campaigners argue that some circus animals are being beaten or forced to perform against their will.
The people at Circus Mondao, which is in Pool-in-Wharfedale until Sunday, say the animals are, quite simply part, of their family.
Petra spoke out in the wake of a Government consultation about a proposed ban on wild animals in circuses.
“With all our animals we know all their little traits and what they like and don’t like. We know that the zebra likes to stand next to this horse, and that is why he is next to the zebra stable.”Petra Jackson
She said: “When people hear the words wild animals they think of lions and tigers, but this would also include our two zebras and our two camels.”
She pointed out that their ‘wild’ animals lived a peaceful life grazing in their paddocks during the day and then making a short appearance in the circus during the evening.
She said they were loved and cared for as part of the family.
She said: “If a ban is enforced this will mean the Government will want to take our animals away from their loving family. Our zebras have been with us since they were only a year old and they are now in their 20s.”
The idea of circus animals being part of a family is at odds with the picture painted by the animal rights campaign group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation (Peta).
They are urging the public to lobby their MPs to ensure a total ban on the use of wild animals in circuses They are making their call as Government ministers said they were ‘minded’ to ban wild animals from big tops, following a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consultation which said that 95.5 per cent of those responding to the consultation supported such a ban.
On their website, Peta argue that wild animals should never be used in circuses, but now, they say: “Huge improvements in animal welfare may be afoot.”
Peta submitted evidence to Defra, including photographs of baby elephants which they say show animals in an American circus which toured Europe being struck with bullhooks and tied down with ropes.
They say: “Elephants, lions and other animals used in circuses spend the vast majority of their time shackled or confined to small cages. They perform confusing, uncomfortable, unnatural and sometimes dangerous tricks because they have learned they will suffer if they don’t obey. In travelling circuses animals such as zebras are frequently exposed to one or more predators, such as dogs, tigers and lions. This causes them a great deal of anxiety.
“The barbaric, centuries-old ‘breaking-in process’ that young elephants are subjected to starts at an age at which elephants in nature are still at their mother’s side. Countries such as Bolivia, Austria, Denmark, Israel, Costa Rica, India and Singapore have all banned the use of wild animals in circuses, and it’s high time that Britain joined the list.”
It is a call that is supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals which is also lobbying the Government to ban their use.
They say: “We don’t believe animals should be subjected to the conditions of circus life. Regular transport, cramped and bare temporary housing, forced training and performance, loud noises and crowds of people are all typical and often unavoidable realities for the animals.
“Scientific research has shown that travelling circus life has a very harmful effect on animal welfare for many species. Performing inappropriate tricks in the name of entertainment also does nothing to foster respect for animals. That is why we think circuses should not use animals especially wild species.”
Peta says: “Although some children dream of running away to join a circus, it is a safe bet that most animals forced to perform in circuses dream of running away from the circus. Colourful pageantry disguises the fact that animals used in circuses are captives who are forced – under threat of punishment – to perform confusing, uncomfortable, repetitious and often painful acts.”
But Petra, who did run away to join a circus at the age of 16, stresses that claims such as these are a picture she does not recognise.
And with only a handful of circuses keeping ‘wild’ animals in the UK she believes that the ones who are doing it do genuinely care for their charges.
And the owners of the Mondao’s two zebras agrees with her and say the term ‘wild’ is in itself misleading and that ‘exotic’ is probably a more appropriate term.
The two women argue that the terminology gives the impression that animals had been dragged out of the wild and shipped across to England to perform, but they stressed this was far from true.
In fact, they said the animals were born and bred in this country, as were many of their forebears.
Carole has looked after her zebras Sinbad and Zebedee all their lives and she argued that their lives were with the circus.
“They are talking about banning them from circuses and relocating them to zoos – but that doesn’t make any sense,” she stated.
She said Zebedee was very attached to one of the ponies in the circus and would pine if they were split up.
She stressed they would not thrive in a completely new environment.
“The herd would pick on them – it would be like putting an OAP in with a load of hooligans,” she said.
Petra added: “With all our animals we know all their little traits and what they like and don’t like. We know that the zebra likes to stand next to this horse, and that is why he is next to the zebra stable.”
They argue that their animals are not made to perform unhealthy tricks but are simply there to be seen.
“It is just the fact that people can see them,” Carole said. “People don’t need to see them standing on their earhole – it is just enough that they are there.”
And the two women say the audiences love to see the animals after the show and have the chance to get close to them.
Sabia the camel appears to lap up the attention, pushing her head forward to be stroked without so much as a hint of fear.
“She loves attention,” Petra said. “She likes being scratched behind the ear, and she absolutely adores people.”
“People can come in here and get really close and can stroke them. Because she is so fluffy, the kids love it.”
Camels Sabia and Kashmir are originally from un-exotic Ireland.
“They are from an animal park which had to close down,” Petra said.
With only seven animal circuses in the UK and only four of those working with ‘wild’ animals, the two women believe there is no widespread abuse in this country and that the bulk of the evidence is coming from abroad.
Petra, who used to work in show-jumping, believes the circuses are an easy target.
“I ran away and joined the circus when I was 16, and I have never looked back,” she said.
“I had been working in a show-jumping yard before and they were so harsh with the horses.
“I just couldn’t do some of the things they wanted me to do to get the horses to jump higher.”
She has been working with animals ever since, despite suffering from allergies to hay, straw and sawdust.
“I love my animals and I love working with animals, “ she said. “I wouldn’t torture myself like that if I didn’t care about animals.”