I grew up a huge fan of the popular 90s film, Free Willy. A beautiful tale about a bond between a boy who frees a captive Orca whale. Little did I know that Free Willy’s was never free.

Unlike the film, Keiko (the orca who played Free willy) was a captured pup who led a sad and miserable life in captivity. Sadly, Keiko passed away at 27 after the onset of pneumonia. He was old for a captive orca, though wild orca live an average of 35 years. The female orca whale can live up to 100 years old in the wild, while in captivity they usually die in their teens.

In 2012, I visited the McLarens circus. I wasn’t elated about the idea, I knew certain animal abuses occurred behind the scenes. There were people with placards placed outside of the circus grounds, protesting and calling anyone who entered “animal abusers”. As an avid animal lover, these accusations hit me hard, I instantly doubted my decision. I entered the circus tent and sat down. The ringmaster appeared with his long black whip, followed by 3 cowering lions and a tiger behind him. What I witnessed has haunted me. The crowd fell dead silent and the ringmaster threw his whip to the ground, with every echo of his whip the big cats would lower their heads and tails in submission. As a cat lover and owner, I could identify the behaviour of a scared or abused cat. The tail droops and so do the eyes. These were frightened and abused animals! One of the 3 lionesses turned her lowered head to the crowd. I was seated right behind her. She stared right at me with extremely doe eyes and a broken soul as if to ask, “Is this what you paid for?”

I felt like I was transported back to the 1800s and the slave master was whipping his slave in front of a cheering audience. This is what that was – animal slavery. Dancing monkeys for human entertainment. I wanted to leave. The lioness stared at me, as if she sensed my guilt. She stoked an activist fire within my soul. While the crowd let out cheers of excitement, I was on the brink of tears. This lioness had shown me, HER truth, the eyes really are the windows to one’s soul.

The only roaring came from the crowd banging their hands together which in turn tortured the eardrums of the wild animals, reminiscent of the ringmasters whip, tailing their behinds.

They are mere shadows of the once powerful revered kings of the jungle. Their lives are over, even if they are let free, as most large carnivores bred in captivity die in the wild because of their lack of natural behaviours needed to survive. Lions NEED to hunt their prey, they NEED to roam freely, from land to the waterhole. I later messaged the McLaren circus on Facebook and inquired about the proper care of their wild animals. They never responded and blocked me from their page. I never supported a circus again.

I assumed zoos were a much better option but I was sorely mistaken, as I saw when I visited one. The lion roared as he miserably paced within his tiny enclosure. We cheered in awe of his mighty roar. He roared because he was irritable by the large amounts of people screaming at him. Some studies suggest that large captive cats spend up to 44% of their lives pacing continually. If only we cared enough to see things from his point of view.

The gorilla leaned against the glass as people mockingly made faces and laughed at him. He stared into the distance as if his mind was still roaming the jungle. I learned later that the gorilla had suffered major depression and passed away while in captivity. Gorillas & bears are hooked on the anti-depressant Prozac.In the words of the author of Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman, “At every zoo where I spoke to someone, a pyschopharmacutical had been tried.”

Like the Orca, the lifespan of a captive elephant is less than 17 years, which is half the life span of elephants killed by poachers. In the wild, elephants can live up to 56 years. Captive animals develop a mental illness, zoochosis which is abnormal repetitive behaviour patterns such as bar biting and self mutilation etc, due to frustration. The surplus of zoo animals or expired animals are sold off to circuses or put to death.

For years we have perpetuated the picture of a perfect circus or zoo that includes an elephant standing on a slender pole doing weird tricks with its trunk or a Lion jumping through hoops of fire to the crack of a whip or a gorilla in a cage for us to look at. What are we teaching our children? That wild animals should be caged, subservient and confined? Only commanded by whips?

Animal circuses, zoos, lion petting farms & aquariums are in high demand and many families still view it as entertainment. This is concerning. Zoos, circuses and aquariums confine animals for human entertainment and most importantly, to earn a profit. If the same amount of money pumped into the upkeep of the zoo were used to fund anti-poaching initiatives, then we could help protect and conserve animals in their natural habitats.

If you want to see a wild animal, see them in the wild, watch nature documentaries, visit wildlife sanctuaries, conservation organisations or national parks.

If you were to confine a dog or cat, it would be classified as animal abuse. So, what do we label the confinement of wild animals?.

It is up to us to free Willy, set him free in the big wild ocean, where he belongs.