“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968

Saturday, 3 January 2015

A bear like no other.

There is an old saying in the circus. "Rissley kids and slanging buffers, only the Lord knows how they suffers." A rissley kid is a child tossed about by a foot juggler and performing dogs are known as slanging buffers. The saying is referring to the exploitation of children and animals that has been a cornerstone of show business since the first strolling players plied their trade in the Fertile Crescent. Performing animals are a contentious issue but it has to be admitted that there is a world of difference between something pretty harmless such as dog obedience trials or performing budgies and the savage cruelty of dancing bears. Controlling a dangerous wild animal is problematical at the best of times and working with bears and big cats is always going to have the potential for things going terribly wrong. That frisson of danger is what draws the punters in. Only having complete control of the animal can keep the trainer safe and in the case of performing bears this was achieved by such delightful practises as nose rings and the removal of teeth and claws.
For many years there was a tradition of wrestling bears on the American wrestling circuits. The creature was usually muzzled and may have been de-clawed. The wrestler who worked with the beast would rely on his speed and skill to stay out of harms way until the time was up. It was not an edifying spectacle and certainly had very little to do with wrestling but I suppose that it got a few bums on seats. In the late sixties a young Scottish wrestler called Andy Robin was working the Canadian circuit when he took part in one such exhibition. Andy was fascinated by the experience and was determined to not only train a bear of his own but to do so by befriending the beast and making it a part of his family. The history of wild animal training is littered with the bones of trainers who lost concentration for a moment and paid the ultimate price. As the Grizzly Bear is considered to be one of the world's most dangerous animals there must have been many who thought that Andy Robin had taken leave of his senses when he obtained a grizzly cub and proceeded to play/wrestle with it as it grew up. Andy and his wife Maggie formed a bond with Hercules the bear that might be unique in the annals of animal training. Together the three of them had an adventure that went far beyond the usual wrestling bear act. Hercules became a film star and when he disappeared when on location in the Outer Hebrides the nation held it's breath until he and Andy were reunited weeks later.
Animal behaviourists don't seem able explain why this potentially deadly, 30 stone animal never betrayed the trust that the Robins had in him. You can keep Paddington, Phoo and the rest - Hercules was the bear for me.

1 comment:

Dr Llareggub said...

Very interesting article. One of the many things I know bugger all about is the circus. But if the Government and EU sort things out I will be on the Performing Animal Welfare Council for Europe, where I will have to look into circuses, as well as other activities. I've been involved with performing dogs and as a judge gave first prize to the young woman and her dog who went on to win Britain's Got Talent. I am also on the GB Canine Freestyle Team up against Japan and Australia where we are doing Michael Jackson's Thriller. I advise on animal training and welfare at a major zoo, and occasionally teach univ courses to behaviourists. I like to dabble.

But seriously, your piece about Hercules and his trainer was great and reminded me of a lad I took on as a university student, who later acquired a Timber Wolf which lived in his home for 13 years. (read his book - the Philosopher and the Wolf, Mark Rowlands - you will find it riveting). Mark financed his university education as a boxer in Moss Side, a tough area of Manchester. The deal was, you put down £50 and if you won, collected your opponent's fifty. On a good night if you are standing up after four wins you go home with £200. Mark later went on to Oxford, worked hard, wrote a book which I published and is now a Prof in Florida. He writes the best stuff available on animal ethics. As an athlete he was able to manage his wolf. They are nocturnal animals and he would bike fifty miles each night with the wolf running beside him. When he played American football the wolf sat on the touchline.
As you say, performing bears are horribly treated and for several years I contributed to postgraduate veterinary courses at the Univ Cambridge where we took in many students from organizations in countries where they opposed inhumane experiments, blood sports and cruelty to bears. The student's required veterinary skills for treating abused animals, legal, ethical and political knowledge to combat hostility in their own countries. I admired their courage and fear that if Class War close down Oxbridge these veterinarians will have to go to other countries or don balaclavas and shout 'Wanker' at opponents. So here I make my point about futile attempt to win the class war by closing down Oxbridge. If you close it down, the rich will find other places for their offspring to gather and prepare for future hegemony. Fortunately, the left will draw back, as Oxbridge enjoys so much funding from the Saudis and it would be racist to oppose it.
Hope you can see the photograph.

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