I have a talking cat, but she has never performed in public. In fact I have never presented a single performing animal, but I have presented thousands of performing children over the years in my Suitcase Circus. I wonder what is the difference? Both animals and children need to look as if they are happy, and have to learn a few basic rules.
As their presenter, I never get children to perform something they can't do, or don't enjoy. My technique is to find something impressive they can do, invite them to do it, then take the credit. (Isn't that what many animal presenters do?)
My cat's name is Blackie. She is a small, ginger great-great-great grandmother, but still a teenager. In the morning I say to her, "Do you want breakfast later or now?" She always says, "Now". I say, "Do you want to stay in, or go out?" She says, "Out". "And to drink, I can offer you orange juice, coffee, tea or milk." She always replies, "Milk", (with a slight feline accent).
No-one has ever suggested that I'm being cruel to share my home with this cat. However, here in Australia, where more fauna species have been wiped out in the last century than anywhere else, we have suddenly realized that the introduced cat may be partly responsible. So, like it or not, most cats are being kept in at night. Thus small, harmless, furry marsupials and rodents are now experiencing a longer and happier life outside, while our cats are, against all their instincts, being 'caged' in the luxury of our lounge rooms or bedrooms at night.
This idea of the few suffering for the greater good of the many brings me to my Animal Liberation fantasy.
For years we will be, as we have been, lulled into complacency by the cultured whispers of David Attenborough, and other TV wildlife experts, as the camera just happens to be there when the African Elephant calf is born, or when the jackals are disemboweling the gnu. We assume that there will always be lots of exotic mammals wherever we look in Africa, that the Serengheti Plain goes on forever, and that there will always be a million flamingoes on the lake.
We will also argue that we don't need to sanction the cruel practice of keeping animals in Circuses and Zoos, because, after all, our children can experience 'real' animals in their natural environment, ie our TV screens.
But I keep thinking of a future time, say ten years from now (which usually means five), when we, the consumers, finally realize what's happening. (Incidentally, I've never been really comfortable with that word. Consumption to me has associations with cancer, fire and locusts). What we will all realize, almost too late, is that there is a direct connection between our 'consumption' of the earth's resources and the increasingly hysterical "Last Wilderness"-style TV documentaries. We will finally see a direct and mutually exclusive relationship between our new 4-wheel drive off-road juggernaut, and the declining grazing land left to the zebra, okapi, kangaroo, buffalo etc.
We will suddenly realize that our urge to 'consume' timber, rubber, minerals, coffee, energy and real estate means that the gorilla, the tiger, the elephant and the aardvark are being squeezed out of their remaining available habitat. The cry will go up from the chattering classes "What can we do before it's too late?"
I am hoping that an enterprising conservationist will come up with a solution,
an idea so audacious that it's never been considered before,
an idea so bold, so direct, that its message cannot be ignored,
an idea that may just reverse the rush to species destruction, and persuade the human multitude that the earth is to be nurtured and shared, not consumed.
Here is the idea.
The enterprising conservationists will adopt a few selected individuals from the endangered species of larger mammals. Ideally these will come from stock that have been bred close to humans, and can tolerate our company.
Instead of holding them in a zoo, necessitating millions of petrol-driven visitor/journeys, they will design a mobile exhibition facility, enabling them to take these species representatives to populations who would otherwise never see them. They will present them in such a way that the populations (let's call them 'audiences') will be awed by their presence. The people must then appreciate the size, the colour, texture, smell, sound and movement of these creatures. If it's a predatory animal, like a lion or leopard, let them have the opportunity to stalk and to spring. If the animals are strong, let them lift, if they are agile, let them climb and balance.
Let them be shown with a human companion. The audience can then compare size, strength and nature, and most of all, let them witness an inter-species relationship of mutual respect and care.
The people, seeing for the first time an elephant up close and personal, or a genuine bond between a human and, say, a great ape, will finally realize the splendour and value of the animals, and the desperate importance of preserving them and their habitat. These few animals will endure an unnatural existence, but they will be loved, well-fed, groomed, with the best possible grazing pens (regulated), and constant veterinary care, and will be healthier and live longer than any animal in the wild.
School groups, college students, adults, families, will be encouraged to have this unique experience of sharing an afternoon or evening in the company of other species.
However, the crowds won't come if this conservation exhibition is presented with an accusatory tone. No audience likes to feel guilty. So the exhibition should include humans, too. Like the animals, the display should show humans at their best, . They should give joyful exhibitions of strength, grace, courage and dexterity, interspersed with comic interludes which, whilst breaking the tension, will also serve to augment the significance of the performers and the animals.
The overall structure will need to be temporary, and transportable by road. A tensile structure would be good - light, portable, able to house a large number of visitors. To maximize visibility, the display area should be circular, which would also be convenient for cantering animals such as horses, camels and llamas.
So, ideally, we have an itinerant community of animal conservationists and presenters, human performers and support staff.
All we need is a short attractive name for this novel enterprise, this ground-breaking experiment in community awareness, this revolutionary attempt to educate people through entertainment and inspire them to respect and nurture the other creatures with whom we share this small planet.
Any suggestions? I've got an idea on the tip of my tongue. Something beginning with C……. ?