When was the last time you felt fear? Maybe you were about to give a speech or were confronted with a large spider in your basement. You palms got sweaty, your breath shorter and you felt your heart pounding in your chest. For Jan Creamer, president of Animal Defenders International — one of the toughest animal welfare groups in the world — fear is part of her job. And the stakes are much higher than for most of us. “Am I scared?” she says. “Over the years, I’ve learned to control it. Because whatever nerves I have, that stress is irrelevant compared to the fear the animals feel every day of their lives.”
In her line of work, Jan has ample opportunity to feel afraid. But behind her delicate frame and Doris Day appearance hides a modern day female Harrison Ford. She’s been drenched head-to-toe in pigs blood while filming slaughter houses in the Philippines, argued with enraged and armed circus owners in Bolivia, confronted injured lions and gone undercover in Europe to film circus elephant abuse.
Jan’s gutsy approach has been incredibly effective: Her work has prompted governments to ban animal circuses in four countries to date, with legislation moving forward in many others including the U.S. Most recently, she closed down the entire Bolivian circus industry and rescued 29 lions to sanctuaries in California and Colorado. The operation is the largest lion rescue to date and the subject of the award-winning documentary Lion Ark.
With summer here, animals at fairs and circuses are back in the spotlight. To many, it may look like harmless fun. But the price the animals pay for a few moments of our entertainment is heavy. That’s why Jan is here to tell us — in her signature matter-of-fact way — why it’s important that we don’t buy a ticket.
Ulrica: Tell me why I shouldn’t buy a ticket to an animal circus. Many think, ‘What’s the big deal? My kids love seeing the animals’.
Jan: What you have to understand when you go to a circus show is that it’s a performance. The lights and costumes and glitz are a distraction from what goes on behind the scenes. The cruelty and suffering those animals go through — every day — in order to put on a few minutes of entertainment is enormous. The only reason those animals do what they do is because if they don’t, they’re going to get beaten. For elephants, that means sharp hooks called bullhooks and electric shocks. If they’re born in captivity, it’s from the moment they’re babies and often with their mother looking on.
Ulrica: What’s the truth behind that dog or monkey or elephant’s performance?
Jan: What you’re seeing is an animal whose spirit has been crushed. It’s an animal who is terrified to step out of line. You might see the animal perform certain moves that seem affectionate, where they give the impression that they’re kissing or hugging the animal trainer. But those types of expressions are human expressions. They’re trained to do that. They don’t feel any affection for that person. What they feel is fear. Because if they don’t do it or if they make a mistake, they know they’ll get beaten, sometimes until bloody.
Ulrica: When you see the animals in their cages or tents, they seem relaxed and calm, moving their bodies back and forth.
Jan: That’s called stereotypic behavior and it means the animal is going out of their mind. That repetitive pacing, nodding and bobbing their heads or swinging their trunks, is abnormal. You see it in all the animals in traveling circuses. It means they’re not coping with their environment. The confinement is too much for them and their mind has closed down. Even if they’re rescued, they may never wake up again.
Ulrica: Why does this happen?
Jan: Let me give you an example relating to a person. If I chained both of your legs and asked you to stay in one place for 24 hours, can you imagine how your legs and knees would feel? We know that’s painful. Your body gets stiff and it hurts. So you’ll start rocking back and forth or pacing to relieve the pain. Whether or not these animals are in a truck or in a tent or in a cage, that’s what it’s like for them their whole lives. Then a few days a week, they might go out for 15 minutes into the circus ring where they’re expected to run around very fast on those stiff legs before going back in their cage again.
Ulrica: You often hear the argument, why should I care about these animals when there are so many humans suffering around the world.
Jan: The truth is, if we can’t bring ourselves to care about the most vulnerable, those who cannot speak for themselves, those who are seen as less intelligent than ourselves, then we’re in trouble. We all gain if we can expand our consciousness, and not see our compassion as something that’s limited only to humans. We must remember that animals have needs and wants, they have a language, they want to live and they have a right to be here.
This summer, instead of taking your kids to the circus or the fair, help them adopt a rescued circus animal. By adopting an animal, you will help rebuild their lives and give them decades of freedom. ADI is currently caring for almost forty animals – including over 30 lions – that they have rescued, rehabilitated and even returned to the wild.
Jan was photographed for Sweden With Love by Gertrude & Mabel Photography.
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