Circuses claim animal lovers 'being manipulated by sinister forces to join protests'
Big Tops Fossetts, Duffys and Courtneys are currently on tour in Northern Ireland
A circus boss has claimed that "sinister" forces are manipulating genuine animal lovers who are protesting outside three Big Top tours in Northern Ireland this week.
The claims from Charles O'Brien of Fossetts Circus come amid denials from animal rights activists that they were behind a fire which killed 13 dogs in a Fermanagh shed owned by relatives of a family named in a BBC investigation into dog breeding.
Three circus companies, Fossetts, Duffys and Courtneys, are currently on tour in Northern Ireland and most of the performances have been picketed by peaceful protesters.
Mr O'Brien said the only animals in the Fossetts show - the oldest continuously touring circus in the world - are a horse and a pony.
He said animal rights activists who had demonstrated outside his circus were conspicuous by their absence from horse-racing meetings or at dog tracks anywhere in Ireland.
Mr O'Brien said: "We accept that people have a right to protest and that overwhelmingly the demonstrators at our gates are sincere, but a quasi-industry has grown up around circus protests thanks to the influence of American organisations who have websites with advice for people on how to lobby, how to get publicity and how to swing public opinion.
"So obviously, people with strong beliefs in somewhere like Northern Ireland are going to turn to America and in the last 20 years there has been a much more sinister campaign, funded predominantly by big organisations there."
Protesters here have denied that they are being orchestrated or financed by American groups.
"We don't need help from across the Atlantic to show our opposition to circuses here," one campaigner said.
Mr O'Brien said the circus industry was "an easy target" for the protesters and that circus people were too busy touring to fight back.
"And besides we don't have much political clout in Ireland but if you tried the same tactics with the show-jumping fraternity north and south of the border for example, you wouldn't get away with the protests that are inflicted on circuses." Recent demonstrations have included placards and banners showing pictures of elephants, tigers and lions, but inside the only animals in the ring were horses, ponies, dogs and llamas.
One circus source said: "The protesters try to grey the area between animal rights and animal welfare. A number of them have been trying to highlight their concerns over welfare but others don't believe that any animals should even be kept as pets and that there should be no equine industry or bovine industry, and that's just ridiculous"
The 127-year-old Fossetts Circus is on tour for all but 25 days of the year with its 27 40ft units and Mr O'Brien said the protests were more commonplace in the north than in the south.
The circus has 43 employees and Mr O'Brien said they were all passionate about their work.
But protesters are equally fervent in their opposition to the circus industry.
A website says their activists are not opposed to all circuses, just animal circuses.
"Some of the circuses touring Northern Ireland at the moment have dogs, horses and/or ponies," it states.
"Domesticated animals such are horses are forced to carry numerous people on their backs.
"And both horses and dogs are forced to perform 'dances' which puts dangerous pressure on their joints and ligaments, risking long-term health damage."
It also claimed that one circus was also keeping tigers in a space less than half the size of an average living room, adding: "The animals are forced to perform twice per day. When not in the ring, they are in cages, sometimes with access to a so-called 'exercise cage' only a few feet in length and width.
"Then after a few days they are packed into a lorry and transported to the next unfamiliar destination. This goes on for nine to 10 months per year."
'If the animals sneeze then we have the vet straight out'
Resplendent in his striking red and gold ringmaster's jacket, David Duffy, who says the circus is in his veins, insisted that the show will go on despite an upsurge in the number of protests against his family business.
"We've been on the road for 120 years through five generations," he said as 388 men, women and children filed into his colourful Big Top in Lurgan yesterday.
"We're not going to be driven off it by animal rights demonstrators. This is our life and our livelihood."
David is the managing director of Duffy's Circus and his 86-year-old father Tom still tours and watches every show with a critical eye from a front row seat.
David's wife Stephanie and sons Jamie and Tom are also fanatical about the circus which has 40 employees including acrobats, trapeze artists and contortionists from Russia, Cuba, Hungary, Italy, Moldova and Brazil.
Aside from the humans, the show also features two Ardennes horses, seven Palominos, five ponies, six dogs and three llamas.
"They're part of our family," Mr Duffy said.
"It's crazy to suggest that we are cruel to any of the animals. They're well looked after and if they sneeze we have the vet straight out."
He said he realised there was no common ground between the protesters and the circus industry, but added: "I respect their intentions. Indeed, we would be against a lot of the things that the campaigners are against.
"We are open to inspection and we've never been cautioned about our animal husbandry. We are open to everyone and we've had numerous unannounced inspections, but that still isn't enough for some people."
Welfare activists claim it's impossible to train any animals without being cruel to them.
"But there's no logic to that," Mr Duffy said.
"We train them with rewards and we treat them with respect. If animals are abused they cower away from their abusers. None of our animals do that and we encourage people who come to our shows to see them afterwards. They all have names and they're all loved and cared for." Last year Duffy's had sea-lions in their shows, but they're not in the current line-up. Not on ethical grounds, but because they were unavailable.
"We used to have lions and tigers as well, but the family who owned them wanted them back in England."
Mr Duffy claimed the protests actually boosted their audience numbers.
No protesters turned up at Lurgan yesterday afternoon, but Edel Breen, who brought her young family to the show, said she had ignored demonstrations in the past.
She added: "I wouldn't have been put off by a protest. It's clear to see the animals here are well treated."