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Exploding a Norwegian myth

mars 24, 2013

First Norway was about to ban elephants in circuses from 2015. Then there was a two and a half year long delay of the implementation process. In October 2012 the Norwegian government decided that it will continue to allow Asian elephants in circuses. What happened ?

baba moss2

The elephant debate in Norway started on the political level in 2002. The then Minister of Agriculture Lars Sponheim (the liberal party Venstre) announced that the use of elephants in circuses would be banned on the basis of the national animal welfare law from 1973. In an article in the national newspaper «Dagbladet» the minister wrote: «How we treat the weakest among us, the animals, reflects the humanity of our society. Yes or no to elephants in circuses is a question of our attitude to keeping animals in general, in other words a question of values».

The minister mentioned particularly the strains the elephants suffer during transport across the long stretched country of Norway. The Cirkus Merano, the «home» of Baba, started its 2013 season on March 1 in Fredrikstad, in eastern Norway. The picture below was taken in Moss March 5 and the circus has so far has travelled around the southern tip of Norway up along the west coast, with performances almost every day. The temperature during the tour has been below zero and the circus now is approaching the city of Bergen. Last year the Cirkus Merano visited over 140 places all the way up northern Norway and back again, ending the season with a performance in Oslo on September 16.


In 2003, when Baba started her string of yearly performances in Norway with the Cirkus Merano, the Norwegian parliament discussed a white paper on animal welfare. The minister once again stressed the symbolic importance of the elephant issue. It involves relatively few animals and the economic consequences are limited. A ban of elehants in circus therefore should be easy to handle compared to other animal welfare cases which involve a lot of animals and bigger industrial concerns. If nothing can be done with elefants in circuses there is less hope of getting something about the situation of other animals, said the Minister of Agriculture.

The circus industry, however, launches a counter-offensive. The director of the Cirkus Merano publicly threathened to close his circus because of the government’s continuous efforts to restrict the industry. The press as usual played the role as his master’s voice for the circus industry, painting the cozy picture of circus life and ridiculing the Minister of Agriculture. The result was that nothing really happened and then came a change of government in 2005, reshuffling the cards. The rural based Senterpartiet with a conservative approach to animal welfare took over the renamed Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the process went back to start.

Then there was a new initiative. Much thanks to the campaigning of the animal rights organisations, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority responsible for animal welfare, initiated a study into all aspects of the use of animals in circus by its advisory scientific committee. The comittee delivered a report highly critical to the use of circus elephants and the authority followed the advice, recommending in 2009 a ban on elephants – or rather, they were excluded from a so-called «positive list» of animals allowed in circuses. African elephants had been out of Norwegian circuses since the start of the decade due to import restrictions according to the CITES convention. The ban thus only concerned Asian elephants.


The proposed ban went on a public hearing in December 2009 and was supported by all animal welfare and scientific institutions asked for their opinion. Norway seemed one step away from stopping the use of elephants in circuses by January 1, 2015. The Food Safety Authority set this date so that the circuses could have five years adjusting to the new situation. But the then minister of agriculture and food Lars Peder Brekk prolonged the internal review of the hearing in his department and the implementation of the ban never happened. Above he is meeting with Live Kleveland from the animal rights organisation Dyrevernalliansen. It published a report reviewing the scientific litterature about elephants in captivity and she in 2010 handed the report to the minister, also giving him a soft cake to make him more sympathetic to a ban.

Then over two and a half year went by without further action. The case got political embarassing and seemed entangled in a bureaucratic game in which the government obviously tried to exhaust the animal rights organisations. In June 2012, however, a young, dynamic man named Trygve Slagsvold Vedum from the Senterpartiet took over the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. He set aside the scientific recommendations and in October 2012 announced that Norway would continue to allow Asian elephants to perform in circuses, on the condition that there will be some improvements in their welfare. Adding a touch of comedy he mentioned as an example that the elephants will get a shower in hot weather.

slagsvold vedum

The situation is complicated: The Food Safety Authorty, originally proposing a ban, was asked to set up new regulations for continued use of elephants and did so against its will. The regulations have been on a public hearing, ending March 15, and the agency now is in the process of putting together the different answers and suggestions it has received. The material will then be sent to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and to the Ministry of Fisheries. Sometimes the Food Safety Authorty wishes tighter regulations than those first proposed. If not, it will ask the ministry of agriculture to implement the guidelines. Both ministries may want to make changes themselves and this could require a new hearing. If not, the regulations can come into force, says senior advisor Maria Vaeret Veggeland in Food Safety Authority to «The World of Baba».

The circus industry had an opportunity to speak their mind before the new regulations were sent on public hearing. The Food Safety Authority wanted to study the consequences of the regulations and contacted the circuses. They stated that the demands for e.g. free space to move, temperature regulations and preventive health care already are fullfilled by the circuses. The authority proposes that groups of elephants of up to 4 animals should have an at least 200 square metres area and alaways have access to a roofed place which holds the temperature of 15 degrees C. Because elephants are highly social animals It will not be allowed to keep a single elephant in a circus. Baba travels alone with the Cirkus Merano, allegedly because she does not accept the company of other elephants.


In the meantime a general election is approaching in Norway, to be held on September 9, 2013. Animals usually are not an issue during election campaigns, but at the moment the government has to keep in mind some controversial issues concerning animal welfare and the protection of animals which could be politically harmful. At the top of this page you see a circus elephant (Baba) looking at you. Here you see a wolf. If you let them look hard enough at you, they are basically conveying the same message: Norway internationally enjoys the reputation as a heroic nation prepared to save animals and safeguard the environment no matter where in the world. Back home, within the borders of Norway, different ways of thinking and rules of taking care of the animals seem to apply.

There are only 30-40 wolves left in Norway. The government has sanctioned an aggressive hunting of them this winter because farmers claim they threatened the livestock of sheep. This issue recently was the subject of an article in the British newspaper Guardian saying Norway’s plan to kill wolves explodes myth of environmental virtue. Also the other predators in Norwegian wildlife – the lynx, the brown bear and the wolverine – are aggressively hunted. As for the Asian elephant, faced with extinction in the wild, the Norwegian government of course endorses all efforts to save this species – in Asia. While in Norway it is okay that this intelligent, social animal with emotions equalling ours is exhibited doing stupid tricks for the entertainment of humans.

We probably are back to what the minister of agriculture said in 2002. Elephants in circus is not a question of elephants only, but of animals in general. Right now also the keeping of fur animals in cages for industrial production is a major issue in Norway and the current minister (smiling on the picture above) probably knows that all these issues are connected. Siri Martinsen, the leader of the animal rights organisation NOAH, touched upon an important point in an article last year when she asked if the ministry of agriculture is using the elephant issue to stall the progress of other animal welfare issues. The price for these tactics could be high if Baba as the most well known circus elephant in Norway turns into a symbol in the struggle for the rights and welfare of all animals.

Text: Inge Sellevåg

From → Norway

2 kommentarer
  1. It is sad to observe how the Norwegian politics fail to take protect animals within and outside Norway including wolfsanimals in circuswhales, the meat industry and the animals in the fur industry.

  2. marte permalink

    true!.. soulless people. wake up people!!!!

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