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Circus Knie keeps animals centre stage

Elephants and miniature ponies remain part of the show swissinfo.ch

While many of its rivals have bowed to pressure from animal rights groups, the Swiss National Circus Knie continues to feature animals in its programme.

This content was published on September 9, 2002 - 10:51

The circus insists they still have a role to play - as long as they are cared for properly.

Unlike other famous troupes such as the Moscow State Circus and the Canadian Cirque du Soleil, Circus Knie maintains a travelling menagerie including elephants, sea lions, horses and a giraffe called Rothschild.

"You can provide animals with a very good lifestyle in the circus if you're willing to put in the effort, the facilities and the money to give them what they want and need," Ingo Stiebner, the sea lion trainer, who is one of this season's special guests, told swissinfo.

Stiebner stresses that nowadays "people are more aware of animal mistreatment". And any abuse would be impossible to conceal since visitors have access to the animals in their travelling zoo, which surrounds the big top.

The elephants, for example, have lots of space, drinking water by the skip-load (quite literally) and are constantly groomed by their keepers.

The horses all have individual stables and a makeshift paddock is set up everywhere the circus goes.

Good reputation

Stiebner believes Knie has earned itself a well-deserved reputation for treating animals well. He says that animal welfare is a top priority especially when they're on the road.

Most of the animals travel by train in specially-designed wagons, but the giraffe has to go by road in an outsize truck, adapted to accommodate its long neck. The sea lions even have their own mobile swimming pool.

"We have a big truck with a fibreglass pool inside. Once they're in there we rip down all this stuff outside - the 90,000 litre pool, shelters, ladders and the filter systems," Stiebner explains.

"I do it with four other guys and it takes about four hours. It can be tiring but it's worth it for them."

Gruelling schedule

The tour schedule is gruelling: this season the circus is performing in 54 different venues, which means they're on the move every four to seven days.

The season is also a long one, starting on March 22 and finishing on November 17.

With such a quick turnaround Circus Knie cannot afford to rest on its laurels, and because it only performs in Switzerland it's constantly reinventing its programme.

"We are forced to make a new show every year as Switzerland is too small to make a tour of two years," says Fredy Knie junior, the troupe's artistic director.

"But it isn't hard work if you love your job [like I do], you just have to be creative and have a fantasy."

Enemy Squad

The circus manages to stay up-to-date by continually introducing new elements to the line-up.

This year the circus has brought in a four-strong break-dancing group from Hungary called Enemy Squad, who compete for the limelight with traditional acts such as clowns and elephants.

Hans from Enemy Squad says it's important to have modern acts as "traditional circus is dead". He says the future of the circus lies in new innovative acts, which stop the show from becoming "boring".

This year many of the acts are a new take on a tried and tested formula. For example, the trapeze artists abandon swinging through the air and instead perform on a giant rotating hamster's wheel.

The Swiss comedy duo, Ursus and Nadeschkin, who provide continuity between the acts, are a modern twist on the old-fashioned ringmaster.

It may well be in its 84th season but the Swiss national circus is playing to packed houses wherever it goes, and judging by the applause it seems as popular as ever.

swissinfo, Sally Mules

Circus Knie

Switzerland has 27 circuses.
The circus has 150 animals and 200 staff.
It was founded in 1919.
The circus is owned by the Knie family.

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Circus Knie

The Circus Knie is part of a dying breed in so far as it includes animal acts, such as performing elephants and sea lions.

Its owners say that as long as the animals are treated well there is no reason why they shouldn't remain part of the programme.

Specially-designed wagons help to transport the animals around, including a mobile swimming pool for the sea lions.

This season the circus is performing in 54 different venues across Switzerland, moving every four to seven days.

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