Sketch: The circus comes to the Scottish Parliament

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 1 December 2017 in Comment

Parliamentary sketch: An environment committee debate on wild animals in circuses quickly gets out of hand

It was a Tuesday morning and the circus had come to town. Well, not exactly. In fact, a circus with wild animals hasn’t come to Scotland in years – they don’t want to – yet MSPs on the environment committee were discussing how to ban them.

Of course, the biggest challenge when banning hypothetical wild animals in hypothetical circuses from coming to Scotland is establishing what constitutes a hypothetical wild animal, and what constitutes a hypothetical domesticated one.

Llamas and reindeer, for example, have posed ontological problems for MSPs in the past. Actually, the question of llamas was cleared up relatively quickly – they have been domesticated since the late 2000s. But reindeer are a more subtle question. Can you domesticate a reindeer? Can anyone really be said to know a reindeer at all?

The answer, apparently, is that it depends on the reindeer in question. As one witness put it to MSPs back in June, during the last time they spent hours talking about it: “Some reindeer are domesticated and some are not. The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 is very vague on that.”

This caused Richard Lyle, in particular, quite a bit of concern, with the SNP MSP left unsure “if someone turned up at a shopping centre with a couple of reindeer” whether they would be breaking the law.

The discussion then became bogged down in debate over what a ban would mean for circus reindeer moonlighting at Christmas – as Rona Brown of the Circus Guild of Great Britain put it, “DEFRA, quite rightly, did not want to kill Father Christmas” – but there is no time to go into that now. No, the key thing is to stay focused, not obsess over freelance reindeer.

So, back to the here and now. MSPs were talking about reindeer again. The problem, it seemed, was that Green MSP Mark Ruskell has been spending his spare time drawing up a list of domestic animals – as, apparently, is his wont – and reindeer weren’t on the list.

Tory MSP John Scott, who has been making a rival list of wild animals, was worried reindeer weren’t on his list either, which was particularly unfair given their role in implementing naughty and nice divisions at Christmas.

So how could they move forward? “I was initially on the same page as John in wanting to define ‘wild animal’ and create a negative list”, Ruskell explained, bafflingly. “However, there are problems with that, and the definition that John Scott has provided results in significant omissions, including that of raccoon dogs.”

Raccoon dogs. Of course, as regular readers will know, a raccoon dog – far from being a made-up cartoon animal – is a canid native to East Asia, also known as the mangut or tanuki. It’s unlikely many raccoon dogs have come to Scotland as part of travelling circuses, but then, that is largely – and it’s worth repeating this – because no travelling circuses with wild animals have come to Scotland in a long, long time.

At this point, Roseanna Cunningham – who had been invited to appear – tried to move things along, telling MSPs she was on board with their obsession with making lists of all the animals they could think of.

She told them: “I understand the motivation and why people would think that a good thing,” before warning that Scott’s list of animals would exclude “woolly lemurs, tamarins, guanacos, vicuñas, night monkeys, squirrel monkeys and all the other different kinds of monkeys that are and can become popular in circuses”.

The members nodded in appreciation at this. Cunningham knows loads of animals. Especially monkeys, apparently.

But at least it looked like we could finally move forward, and so Stewart Stevenson pounced forward, like a grizzled old circus lion moving to mainstage in the big tent.

“I have identified that I have llamas three miles from my home and there are vicuñas and alpacas 10 miles from where I live,” he revealed. No one around the table seemed totally sure about how to take that, to be honest.

Moving logically on, he highlighted wild horses on Exmoor, “which could be brought to Scotland – although they are semi-domesticated in some ways”, colonies of wild goats and sheep, and cats that have gone feral. “There is a range of ambiguities,” he said.

If the discussion had proved anything, it was that there was a range of ambiguities. In fact, there was a table surrounded by a range of ambiguities, and they were discussing wild animals, seemingly at random.

But before Stevenson could go any further, Cunningham stepped in. “And, indeed, there are wallabies,” she pointed out.

Stevenson looked surprised. Normally he’s the weirdest person at any table. “The cabinet secretary says wallabies,” he said. “My experience is comprehensive, but not total. I have not yet met any wallabies.”

Stewart Stevenson has never met any wallabies? If not, why not? Who decides what witnesses to invite to these things? The clerks have a lot to answer for.

“One could even consider rabbits,” he suggested, though no one took him up on the offer. And sadly, with most of the morning spent listing animals, by that point, there wasn’t much time left for anything else.

At least Cunningham looked relieved, having successfully navigated her way between Ruskell’s list of domestic animals and Scott’s list of wild ones without offending anyone. Tightrope walkers have it easy.

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