When animals are fair game

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Sporting spectacles have a historical fascination for animals. Be it sacrifice or celebration, the cruel tradition continues

By Jay Mazoomdaar

Olympic circus Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony will feature live animals
Olympic circus Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony will feature live animals
Photo: AFP

UNDER PRESSURE to match up to the stunning spectacle created by the Chinese at Beijing four years ago, Danny Boyle has refused to compromise on his mega plan to recreate a rural English setting during the £27 million opening ceremony of the London Olympics. So the ambitious pastoral theme features — along with real soil, grass, ploughs, a cloud hanging over and a cricket team — live farm animals, including 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 70 sheep, 10 chickens and 10 ducks, surrounded by thousands of performers.

PETA president Ingrid Newkirk urged Boyle to consider the risks of stressing, injuring, and traumatising the animals: “There are inevitably serious problems involved when it comes to using live animals in productions… with animals falling ill, defecating, urinating, etc. Animals become stressed and anxious when they are forced into unfamiliar or frightening situations, and stage sets are obviously traumatic environments for them.”

Avoiding the suggestion of using animatronics, Boyle stressed that “genuine care will be taken of the animals, including judging how they react to the stadium environment” and that they “will feature only in the beginning of the show during daylight hours and will leave the stadium after 9 pm and before any large effects or noisy sequences take place”. He assured Newkirk that her point about retiring the animals to a sanctuary after the performance, rather than being sent back to farms and eventually slaughtered, would be followed up “vigorously”.

Fortunately, the London Games mascots — Wenlock and Mandeville — are designed as two drops of steel. Had the games panel fallen for the usual animal theme — jaguar (Mexico City), beaver (Montreal), bear (Moscow), eagle (Los Angeles), tiger (Seoul), sheep dog (Barcelona), platypus (Sydney) and giant panda (Beijing) — Boyle might have been tempted to parade a live mascot a la our very own Kuttinarayanan alias Appu.

I killed my school’s chances of winning an interschool creative writing competition, or so my teachers said, by “mishandling the theme”. It was 1982 and we were asked to write on Appu, the mascot of the Delhi Asiad. I carped and carped about the plight of a five-year-old elephant that was being trained to stand on one leg in the mascot position. No prize came my way and I was happy the teachers blamed the “negative slant” of the disquisition rather than my limited writing skills.

Thrissur’s Kuttinarayanan was eventually spared the trauma of posing as Appu and ended up regaling children at the Games Village. But not all animal mascots have been as lucky, certainly not the six tigers Mike I-VI at Louisiana State University, the three tigers Tom I-III at the University of Memphis, lions Leo and Una at the University of North Alabama, Albert the alligator at the University of Florida, Lacumba the jaguar at Southern University, bears Joy and Lady at Baylor University, and about 40 tiger cubs, always named Obie, used by Ohio’s Massillon High School since 1970.

Beyond US college leagues, even the great tradition of Olympics has been cruel to animals

Beyond American school and college leagues, even the great tradition of Olympics has been cruel to animals. In the ancient days, 100 oxen used to be sacrificed to please Zeus and provide for a gala feast for the spectators. In an early edition of the modern Olympics, live pigeon shooting claimed 300 birds. During the 1900 Games at Paris, the event ended with dead and injured birds strewn all over.

The gentleman’s game has not been too gentle on animals either. The village of Hambantota in Sri Lanka fears an escalation in human-elephant conflict with rapid mega development, including the world’s largest cricket ground, in this elephant territory. Remember that little jumbo in blue overalls, made to play Stumpy the mascot during the inaugural match of the 2011 World Cup? The cameras quickly shifted focus to a lonesome wild elephant in the shrub forest just outside the newly-built stadium. I doubt it was cheering.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist. 
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