The 1950s and 60s have been described as the “heyday of the British Circus”, with famous names including Chipperfields, Robert Bros and the Blackpool Tower Circus parading their menageries of animals to the paying public. At its peak, Billy Smart’s circus toured with 200 animals, including elephants, lions, horses, polar bears, camels, sea lions and chimpanzees.
The 1950s were also a boom time for zoos, further popularised by television programmes such as Desmond Morris’ Zoo Time and David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest, which encouraged the scramble for people to collect wild animals and display them for public entertainment.
In 1957, a dissenting voice amongst the enthusiasm for zoos and circuses emerged in the form of retired school teacher, Irene Heaton. She was appalled by the suffering that animals were subjected to as part of the entertainment industry and founded The Captive Animals’ Protection Society in order to bring about a change to both practices and attitudes.
And so it was that CAPS was born and the campaigning began.
In 1965, CAPS promoted a bill to the House of Lords, sponsored by Lord Somers (who was then president of CAPS) to prohibit the use of performing animals. Despite great support it was unfortunately defeated by just 14 votes but comments from politicians showed that supporters felt extremely strongly on the issue, and included this forthright statement from the Earl of Haddington:
”There is one thing about performing animals which I think everyone must agree, namely, that to dress animals up and make them do these tricks and for humans to sit there and laugh at them is the most degrading spectacle. Surely, if humanity is never going to rise higher than that it is a very poor look out for the world”.
The 1970s saw CAPS organising demonstrations outside circuses and membership growing to include supporters from all around the world. Pressure increased on animal circuses in the 1980s, with the organisation gaining the support of the National Council of Women. In a positive step forward, CAPS helped to finance the UK’s first animal-free circus, set up by the daughter of late Coco the Clown in response to her father’s dying wish.
In the mid-1980s CAPS started one of its most important campaigns: to stop animal acts at the prestigious Blackpool Tower Circus, where for six months of every year the animals were confined in the cellars of the tower. Along with the locally-based International Animal Welfare Alliance (founded by Pat Simpson, who later became a director of CAPS), the campaign gathered momentum.
Three years later, it was announced that animal acts would stop at the circus once the contract expired in 1990. When the circus owner moved to the adjoining Pleasure Beach there were weekly demonstrations. Backed by vets and other experts, the campaign worked and in 1997 Blackpool Pleasure Beach announced there would be no more animal circuses on its land.
One of the biggest impacts on animal circuses has been from CAPS’ work in encouraging local councils to ban them from their land. In 1986, Irene said that when she founded CAPS in 1957, “not a single local authority was interested in the circus question. Now, approximately 100 refuse applications from circuses presenting animal acts.” That number has now doubled. Irene Heaton passed away in 1987, leaving behind her a legacy of hope for captive animals and a determined group of followers willing to carry on the work she had started thirty years before.
From 1990 CAPS increased the use of undercover investigations to gather evidence and visual images of cruelty. CAPS is now well-known for its hard-hitting photographic and video evidence, which have been utilised by organisations worldwide in their campaigns to end animal circuses.
Investigation techniques are now used in all aspects of our work; including campaigns against zoos and the exotic pet trade. Throughout the 90s, CAPS extended its work with grass-roots animal rights organisations, supporting protests by supplying campaign materials, setting up the successful annual National Zoo Awareness Weekend and making effective use of the media with many major stories in national newspapers. A website providing perhaps the most comprehensive resource on circuses and zoos is used by the public, students and campaigners globally. Our videos No Place Like Home and Sad Eyes and Empty Lives remain the only detailed video exposés of UK zoos.
In 1998 CAPS started a campaign against pet fairs, our investigators obtaining the vital first-hand evidence on how these animals, many taken from the wild, are treated. Our investigations of the reptile trade led to close alliance with Animal Aid and the Animal Protection Agency in exposing bird fairs. So strong was the case against pet fairs that in 2006 the government announced that a clear ban on them would be implemented through the new Animal Welfare Act.
In 2004, we commissioned the first ever scientific study of public aquaria. The result was a damning indictment of this previously overlooked part of the zoo industry. While the industry tried hard to rubbish the study, the influential International Zoo News reported favourably on it and the government distributed it to local authorities and zoo inspectors.
While most of our work concentrates on UK issues, our investigators have filmed zoos and circuses around Europe and in 2006 we launched a new campaign against animal circuses in Ireland, working with campaigners there.
2009 through to early 2011 saw CAPS media presence grow significantly with large-scale exposés bringing to light the reality of the life of zoo animals. Our investigations led to high profile zoos and safari parks being publicly exposed as being in breach of licensing laws, breeding animals for sale to circuses and the re-homing of animals previously kept in appalling conditions in an illegal zoo. As the profile of CAPS grows, so does its ability to spread its message far and wide – reaching new supporters and influencing new audiences.
The work and expertise of CAPS is widely recognised by other organisations and a testament to this is the acceptance of prestigious awards, given by the RSPCA to three previous CAPS Directors for their work in animal protection. Today, we work in partnership with a growing network of organisations and individuals who share our aims and objectives.
Few organisations can announce that 60 years on they are still campaigning strongly for animals with the same passion and commitment as its founders. Amongst those that can, CAPS stands proud.
If there is a need for CAPS to remain active in 2057, you can guarantee that we will remain at the forefront of the no-compromise stance against animal cruelty. Your support will ensure that CAPS will always be there for the animals as long they need help.