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A trail of elephants wandering through a grassy landscape

Ban on wild animals in circuses

Legal situation in Austria now

  • §27 (1) TSG states: In circuses and similar situations, it is forbidden to keep any wild animals or to use them for shows.
  • §4 (4) TSG states: Wild animals are all animals, who are neither pets nor farm animals.

Campaign Overview

In 1996, VGT started a campaign against animal circuses. During the years till 2002, there were demos almost everywhere outside those circuses. When the campaign shifted towards achieving a ban, it was focused on wild animals only as a compromise. In 2003 the ban was put in place and in 2005 it took effect.

Till August 2005, there was still an Austrian circus using wild animals, since the circus did not consider a fox, a snake and yaks as wild animals. However, eventually the ban was enforced. Today there are no circuses using wild animals in Austria. The remaining animals in circuses are mostly horses, camels, cattle, pigs and dogs.

In 2006, German circuses tried to instigate procedures by the EU Commission against the Austrian wild animal circus ban, since they felt that the fact that they could use wild animals in Germany but not in Austria was contrary to the freedom of provision of services in the EU. A concerted VGT-led EU-wide campaign persuaded the commissioner otherwise within 7 months.

History of the Austrian ban on wild animals in circuses

The VGT started their campaign against wild animals in circuses in 1996. With intensive campaign work it was possible to convince the authorities to issue a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses in 2002. As part of the new Animal Welfare Law this ban came into force on January 1st 2005.

During this campaign many VGT activists were victims of brutal attacks from circus employees. The resulting criminal proceedings dragged on until 2004.

Subsequent to the ban a further problem arose; circuses visiting Austria from other countries to tour and perform were not heeding the wild animal ban. The VGT made its voice heard here too, launching an EU-wide campaign as well as documenting and demonstrating against the illegal performances.

The VGT's future vision is of circuses without any animals. Such circuses already exist and have been successfully performing for many years.

Campaign against circus animals

There are campaigns against wild animals in circuses all over the world. Many other countries also have bans, for example, many counties in countries such as: England, Spain, Scandinavia, Brazil, Croatia and Israel.

There are around 10 circuses in Austria. In as far back as 1996, most of them no longer had wild animals. In addition to the Pickhard circus with their giant snake, only 3 circuses were keeping wild animals: the Golden Circus with 2 dancing bears, the Austrian National Circus Louis Knie with a big animal menagerie, including wild animals such as hyenas, bears, lions, tigers and elephants, and the circus Belly-Vienna with elephants. And not forgetting, of course, the circuses from other countries also visiting and performing with wild animals on a regular basis.

Golden Circus

It was immediately obvious to every visitor who took a closer look, that the small Golden Circus treated their two bears in a terrible way: they had nose rings, were imprisoned in a tiny cage, and confidential witnesses told us how brutally they were treated. The Golden Circus hardly reacted to the VGT's campaign. In November 1999, the Circus went bankrupt, however, further performances continued until June 2000. After that, the two bears were transferred into the bear sanctuary in Arbesbach.

Austrian National Circus Louis Knie

This circus reacted with violence to the campaign. In 1996 a VGT activist extensively filmed performances where animals appeared, in preparation for the VGT campaign. This didn't appeal to the circus manager Louis Knie, who punched the activist in the face. Knie was convicted.

Brutal to humans – brutal to animals. Based on the similarity between humans and animals, studies in criminal psychology proved a long time ago that there is a connection between violence to humans and violence to non-human animals. Therefore, Knie's tactics came as no big surprise. All in all activists from several cities were attacked, beaten and injured. Finally, the circus changed their strategy. But, only after their violence brought them anything but negative headlines.

In the years 1998 and 1999, the circus tried their luck by trying to bring various charges against the VGT. They also attempted to have the permission for the VGT demos refused by intervening with the authorities. In the end, however, the basic right of freedom of speech won the day.

In 2000 the circus returned to using violence: in March 2000, VGT activists, first in Krems and then in Tulln, were attacked and badly injured by circus employees, lead by the circus owners Louis Knie senior and junior. In this attack, the circus people systematically destroyed all the activists' equipment including a TV, electricity generator, VHS recorder, banners and posters. In due course, the circus was ordered to pay 100.000 Schillings (approximately 7.000 Euros) in compensation to the VGT. There were acquittals due lack of evidence in the criminal proceedings against the main offenders. The court acknowledged the employees of the circus as the attackers, however, who was responsible for the attack, could not be proven.

On December 21st 2001, the Austrian National Circus Louis Knie went bankrupt as well. However, a group of benefactors bought all of the circus's assets and, as a result, the circus was able to continue as before. The VGT had offered, together with other animal groups, almost one million Schillings (approximately 70.000 Euros) to buy the remaining 70 animals – without success. In 2001 at least, the Circus Knie had to get by without wild animals, due to the risk of foot and mouth disease. But the new owners had already publicly disclosed that they planned to buy or rent new big cats and elephants for the coming year. So, the VGT campaign continued and charges were made against the circus for the conditions that the animals were kept in and breaches to the Animal Welfare Law.

Despite the ban coming into force on January 1st 2005, the circus Knie toured again around Austria with wild animals, starting on March 12th 2005. Although the VGT made innumerable complaints, the circus couldn't be prosecuted. This was largely due to the circus changing location so fast and the authorities reacting too slowly. Towards the end of May, the circus even got additional support via a letter from the ministry responsible for animal welfare. With this special authorisation (the ministry apparently represented the legal opinion that some of the circus animals were employees private pets) the circus Knie managed to continue touring with wild animals until August 2005. On August 17th, the keeping of the animals was officially prohibited for the first time and the circus received a fine. On August 31st, after not having received their licences for additional performances, the circus went bankrupt again. The wild animals were sold in September 2005 by the creditor bank to the German circus Lana and were brought out of the country.

More than 100 legal complaints in a span of 9 months were necessary to get the authorities to enforce the ban on wild animals.

Circus Belly-Vienna

The last remaining Austrian circus with wild animals was the Circus Belly-Vienna. It had 2 elephants who were bought in 1997. One of these elephants is responsible for the life threatening attack on a circus visitor. In the year 2000, it became public that the circus director wanted to illegally bring another elephant into the country. The police tried to prevent this however, the circus manager eluded the authorities by escaping to Germany.

Beginning in September 2001, VGT activists started informing the visitors of the circus Belly-Vienna about conditions for the animals in the circus. In response, the manager Mr. Zinnecker and his employees reacted with more violence than all the other circuses put together: in Salzburg and Bad Ischl, they beat activists to a pulp. In total, 12 were severely injured. Again, considerable damage was also done to VGT property. Even though the attackers – as is usual in these types of attacks – had tried to destroy all film cameras of the activists, a 10 year old passer-by succeeded in secretly filming this attack. On the next day, almost all TV channels showed this footage. A penal lawsuit and an adequate civil action for compensation and for the damaged equipment were filed. The manager Mr. Zinnecker is no stranger to the authorities: in 1990, he beat a police officer and could only be stopped by a warning shot being fired. After the prosecution had put to case to rest, VGT lodged a complaint, so that the case was continued at the financial risk of the VGT. Finally, sentences were given out: on July 13th 2003, the circus manager Roman Zinnecker was sentenced to a 1.000 Euros fine for grievous bodily harm. On July 17th 2004, his accomplice Thomas Kasper was also sentenced. He, however, only had to pay 80 Euros. Both, though, never paid a Cent.

Breach of contract proceedings against Austria

After being refused entrance to Austria for having wild animals, several German circuses made complaints to EU-commission. In a reminder letter from the EU commissioner for the European Market on October 12th 2005, Mr. Charlie McCreevy criticized the Austrian ban on wild animals in circuses stating that the ban illegally restricts the freedom of provision of services within the EU.

The EU-commission wanted Austria to change its ban on wild animals in circuses such that it would only apply to national circuses and not affect foreign circuses. The freedom of provision of services act means that a service provider, such as a circus for example, which is allowed to offer its service in one country, can do so in any other country within the European Union without limitations. The Austrian ban does not prevent circus performances in general, it only asks those circuses with wild animals not to have those animals with them. However, the EU-commission saw this as an unreasonable limitation of activity for a foreign circus in Austria. They said that animal protection is indeed an important value in the EU, however, a complete ban keeping wild animals in circuses would be too extreme.

In response the VGT started an intensive EU-wide campaign. This included presenting their own website vgt.at/circus.php (not available any more) in different EU-languages on December 2005, which enabled people to send automatic protest e-mails to relevant sites and individuals demanding that the EU let Austria keep its ban for national and visiting circuses. As well as providing the opportunity to send protest mails the site also kept the public informed and up-to-date about the campaign. By the beginning of April 2006, over 20.000 people from all over Europe had sent protest e-mails from the VGT website.

This intensive lobbying of the EU-parliament, with the support of virtually all animal protection and animal rights organisations inside the European Union resulted in a huge wave of protest. The SPÖ (Socialist Party of Austria) MEP Jörg Leichtfried gave a speech on December 13th in the presence of Commissioner McCreevy saying that the protection of the welfare of animals must be paramount in the EU. With the ban on wild animals in circuses, Austria is leading the way for animal protection and should be applauded not reprimanded. Altogether, 4 critical inquiries were made to the EU-commission (by the SPÖ on November 23rd, by the MEP Karin Resetarits on December 6th, by Dutch MEPs on January 5th and by English MEPs on January 12th) and another one by a German MEP on December 9th. Innumerable protests by animal protection and animal rights organisations from all countries swamped the EU-commission.

By Mid-January 2006, the Austrian government answered to the EU-Commission that the ban is just and legal and that Austria will stand by it and take up any challenge against it in the European Court.

On 25th January 2006, Green Party MPs brought in a bill to the Austrian Parliament which demanded that the government support the ban by all means necessary and to use its 6 month period from 1st January 2006 as president of the EU-council to apply pressure for a similar ban across the EU. A large majority voted in favour of this proposition.

On 7th February 2006, the German Parliament followed suit. The Green Party put a similar proposal to the vote. Again, a large Parliamentary majority approved the proposal, which concludes with the words: The German Parliament, together with all animal protectionists in the EU, expects that the EU-Commission will stick to the aims formulated in the EU constitutional proposal, which includes animal welfare, and hence that the Commission will support all efforts on the national level to protect wild animals and that it won't insist on forms of keeping and using animals that are inconsistent with animal welfare or the protection of species.

On 16th February 2006, EU Parliament decided on a new directive regarding the provision of services across borders within the EU – which stated that those providing services must abide by the laws of the country they are providing the services in. This decision, clearly, also supported the position that a ban on wild animals in one country must be respected by the circuses in all other countries.

While the EU-Commissioner McCreevy was reluctant to answer any questions or to meet with animal advocate delegations, his replies to queries changed from being very assertive at the beginning of the campaign, to being quite defensive at the end. Also, a number of MEPs had been prompted by animal rights groups, especially the VGT, to have meetings with him. It soon became clear that the animal rights advocates had won the day.

On March 30th, the Austrian animal welfare minister held the first EU animal welfare day in Brussels. The Austrian Animal Welfare Law, including the ban on wild animals in circuses, was presented as an exemplary example to the rest of the EU.

On 12th April 2006, Commissioner McCreevy said publicly regarding this case: As we had received a complaint, we had to follow it up. But I am confident that this case can soon be closed. After publication of this statement, many MEPs congratulated the Commissioner for his decision to drop the case. With this outcome, it is clear that the welfare of animals is becoming an increasingly important issue in the EU.

So, while the case has not been closed officially, it seems that the Austrian ban on wild animals in circuses will prevail. Such cases, insiders in Brussels say, are never closed officially, but are just ignored instead of being decided upon.

The case is now officially closed and the EU Commission recognizes that a ban on wild animals in circusses is necessary to accomplish animal protection so that freedom of provision of services can be restricted by it.

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