A still image of the amateur video footage taken on a cellphone last December show a handler at Boswell Wilkie Circus whipping an elephant with a stick.
A still image of the amateur video footage taken on a cellphone last December show a handler at Boswell Wilkie Circus whipping an elephant with a stick.

Durban - Amid mounting anger over the abuse of elephants by handlers at Brian Boswell’s Circus, the management of the family-run business have dismissed the beatings as isolated cases.

They said on Tuesday they were denied an opportunity to timeously act against the culprits.

Amateur video footage, which aired on the Carte Blanche TV programme on Sunday night, shows one incident in which a handler is running towards an elephant and then whipping the animal, which is seen running away from him.

Another incident shows a handler hitting an elephant, and when one of the staff members in the video was approached by a Carte Blanche team and secretly filmed, he reportedly said that his father had taught him it was necessary to inflict pain to get results when training an elephant.

“You hit them hard, you can’t just tap them lightly, but you only hit them when you are training them,” he had said.

While the footage was aired on Sunday, the national council of the SPCA (NSPCA) had received the amateur videos - taken on a cellphone and a hidden camera in December - in January and laid five criminal charges against the circus last month.

But the circus’s management claim they were denied an opportunity to view the footage themselves at the time, when they said they could have acted against the animal abusers.

The Carte Blanche feature quoted Isabel Wentzel, NSPCA national inspector, who said they had given the circus an opportunity to view the footage with them but were turned down. She claimed the circus asked that the footage be sent to them.

Georgina Boswell told the Daily News on Tuesday that her family had watched the footage for the first time, with everyone else, on Carte Blanche. Boswell said they were outraged by the abuse from staff members who, she said, had grown up with them - and the animals.

“One employee was fired in December when a member of the public had shown us video footage of abuse against the elephants and the other groomsman was identified on Sunday night and has since been suspended, pending an investigation,” Boswell said.

 

Since the airing of the footage, support for the “Boycott Brian Boswell Animal Circus” Facebook page appears to have increased. And the NSPCA’s petition to the Department of Environmental Affairs to ban wild animal acts in circuses drew more than 1 000 signatures on Monday.

The NSPCA launched its “Celebrate the Wildness of Wild Animals” campaign in 2011, calling for the public to boycott circuses, which use wild animal acts in their travelling shows.

 

Ainsley Hay, acting manager of the NSPCA’s wildlife unit, explained that each signature on their electronic petition was automatically sent to the department and they were hoping their message was being spread far and wide.

“Over 30 countries have already banned the use of wild animals in circuses, including Austria, Greece, Bolivia, Peru, Australia, Israel and Singapore,” she said.

“The NSPCA does not believe that wild animals should be subjected to the conditions of circus life. Performing inappropriate tricks in the name of entertainment does nothing to foster respect for animals. Animals in circuses do not benefit any educational, conservational or scientific cause.”

Hay said police were investigating the criminal charges they had laid against the circus handlers and Brian Boswell’s Circus.

 

Dr Mandy Lombard, the elephant policy spokeswoman for Public Watch, an organisation that focuses on biodiversity conservation and wildlife welfare, said it was up to the government to change legislation to ban the use of wild animals in circuses.

Lombard, who is also a research associate at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, said the UK would implement such a ban in 2015 - a decade after people started campaigning for it.

“Legislation for animal welfare in South Africa is very bad,” she said. “To improve it we are trying to follow two steps: the first being trying to go about changing legislation and the second is informing people not to attend the circus.”

Public Watch, which has highlighted and captured footage of abuse against circus elephants, has been campaigning since 2008 for the welfare of elephants in captivity, and trying to get the Department of Environmental Affairs to publish minimum standards on this issue. Lombard said the standards would not allow for the elephants to be chained or beaten.

However, Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development MEC Meshack Radebe said while his department was against the abuse of any animal, there were no plans, either provincially or nationally, for a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses.

“We don’t have this problem (of abuse) in KZN, but should this issue come to light in the province we will step in,” he said.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesman, Musa Mntambo, said his organisation would be guided by the national Department of Environmental Affairs’s response to the NSPCA’s petition.

 

Boswell told the Daily News her family could have acted sooner against the culprits had they seen the footage in January when they were contacted by the NSPCA about it.

“We asked to see it and were told by the NSPCA that they could not send us the film due to criminal charges being put in place. We did not hear from the NSPCA again in this regard, despite having had 17 inspections by various SPCA inspectors since December,” she said. “The next time we heard about the criminal charges was when Carte Blanche wanted our response to the allegations of animal abuse.

“We asked again to see the footage and were refused.”

She said the incidents of abuse were isolated and that they did not support animal abuse.

 

The Boswells have a storied history in South Africa, with their roots in the circus business going back to the 1800s in England.

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