Sophie Morlin-Yron meets Jan Creamer – effective, courageous and seemingly selfless campaigner against animal cruelty worldwide, from Bolivia to Zambia, from circuses to factory farms.
As president of Animal Defenders International (ADI) and chief executive of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, as well as the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research, Jan Creamer has dedicated most of her life to fighting against animal suffering.
At 61, Creamer is at the forefront of ADI’s work, which is mainly focused on helping animals in captivity. Fearless and not afraid of getting her hands dirty, she got covered in pigs’ blood once during an overnight investigation into animal slaughter in the Philippines.
But when I ask her about this, she shrugs it off and steers the conversation into other issues surrounding animal slaughter.
Giving a voice to the voiceless
After having spent time doing human rights and social justice campaigning as a teenager, it was a campaign against laboratory animals that sparked Creamer’s interest in a career fighting for animal justice. It was about giving a voice to the voiceless.
“The thing that really struck me with animals was that they couldn’t speak up for themselves. They communicate and they have emotions and language between each other, but they can’t tell us when we are being unjust or when they are in fear.”
With offices in Los Angeles, London and Bogota, Creamer’s non-profit organisation campaigns across the globe, largely against the abuse of animals in entertainment. They investigate, provide video and photographic evidence, support scientific research, help draft regulations and conduct hands-on rescue operations.
How public outrage led to change in Bolivia
Their campaign against the abuse of circus animals has been a worldwide success. In 2011, Creamer’s team undertook a groundbreaking operation to rescue Bolivia’s circus animals.
The mission started with an undercover investigation in several South American countries, such as Colombia, Peru and Brazil, and ended with airlifting 25 lions from Bolivia to a sanctuary in Denver, Colorado. The findings of ADI’s investigations sparked public outrage, and Bolivia was first to pass a legislation.
Passing such legislation meant that a large number of animals needed to be rehomed. Creamer’s team worked with the Bolivian government to make this happen. These are complicated rescue missions which require collaboration between police, local authorities, wildlife authorities and the ADI.
They had only four months to rehome an entire country’s circus animals. This was a wonderful and absolutely exhausting project, says Creamer. “But very rewarding, in that you can get a whole country behind a project to just do the right thing.
“People felt very strongly about it. We actually had members of the public standing out on the street applauding and cheering, they were so pleased that something was being done for the animals.”
In the UK, there’s a lot of progress to be made
The UK is far behind 27 countries worldwide who have – many of them with the help of ADI and public support – put a stop to performing animals in travelling circuses. Two circuses in the UK are still using wild animals.
As reported in The Ecologist last month, ADI is urging the UK public to help in theircampaign to pressure MPs to support a new backbench bill which will be introduced to Parliament next month. The campaign has support amongst high-profile celebrities, such as Sir Paul McCartney, Judi Dench, Joanna Lumley and Ricky Gervais.
Circus animals live in small confined spaces with little freedom. This causes severe distress and mental problems, says Creamer.
“You can imagine if I asked you to stand there for 12 hours, your feet would hurt and your legs would ache and you would start to move. And that’s often how it starts, to try to release stress and then it becomes a mental problem.
“All of the species that we have observed and filmed in travelling circuses suffer from these problems. It’s for a very simple reason. If you are keeping animals on the back of trucks and in tiny collapsable enclosures – they have to be small and lightweight to me moved quickly – you cannot provide the animals with the facilities they need to keep them healthy and happy.
Abnormal behaviour is the certain result
This distress causes abnormal behavior among the animals, says Creamer.“The large cats will pace up and down and make strange movements with their heads. They will twist their heads or look up in a strange way.
“Looking at it you can tell it looks abnormal. It’s not right and there is something wrong with the animal. With the elephants, bears and other types of animals you see a lot of rocking and swaying and rubbing against bars, or constantly chewing at bars.”
Creamer says animal circuses is a thing of the past and urges people to take their children to non-animal circuses instead. “They are rapidly taking over. You can see people performing wonderful human skills. You can enjoy all of the fun of the circus without the animals.”
What you see behind the scenes is very different from what the public sees, she addds:“What I can say to people is that I have been inside circuses, filmed and photographed them.
“I have sent my investigators into circuses all over the world for the last 25 years, and whenever you see an animal in the circus, what I can tell you is that that animal is being forced to do something it doesn’t want to do. And the means of force is either a punch or a kick or a slap. Or depriving it of food or water or beating with an iron bar or the use of a stun-gun.”
A second life
Creamer’s organisation can offer animals in captivity a new life, but what does this ‘second chance life’ look like?
“Overall it’s an amazing success story. The shells of animals that we pick up from the circuses, after 3-4 weeks of being fed and playing and having a little bit of pleasure in their lives, you start to see their personalities develop.
“The animals don’t have our facial muscles and language. They can’t communicate with us in exactly the way that we would understand, but if you watch carefully you can see how they are trying to communicate. They are conveying fear, sadness, distress and even happiness.
“And they have a sense of fun and like to play tricks on people and on other animals … it’s very important for people to start to recognise qualities in other species that we find it more comfortable to pretend don’t exist.”
A long life in captivity
A healthy lion could live to 25, a chimpanzee to 50. Some of the lion cubs that ADI rescue are expected to live another 20 years at least.
The lions from the Bolivian circus have gone from living in a truck all their lives in a space the size of a double bed (for eight huge lions) to 25 acres. Creamer says she can now see them becoming the lions that they are.
“They run and play, and the females have started to hunt if birds come into the enclosures. They are not very good at it, because they haven’t had the opportunity to learn those skills, but the instinct is there. And you can see the changes in their faces.”
In all her years working with wild animals was she ever injured? “No, I’m very careful around the cats. We build our own cages which the cats can’t get their claws through. It’s all designed for safety, but they do launch themselves at you sometimes, and I have been threatened by them.”
Creamer speaks of these cats as if they were her babies. At home in Surrey where she lives with her husband Tim Phillips – Vice President of ADI and Director of the documentary Lion Ark, which tells the story of the Bolivian circus lions – she has a number of (domestic) house cats.
She does get attached to the large cats they rescue and sometimes even grows to love them, but she strongly believes they belong in the wild and in letting animals be animals – not for human entertainment.
“It is important that they have the company of their own kind, because we can never replace a lion having another lion or a chimpanzee another chimpanzee. We always imagine that they are as fascinated by us as we are by them, but they are actually not. We are not really that interesting.
“For the lions we are far too fragile, we are not a very good toy. They want to run and play and wrestle. If they wrestle us we break in two minutes, so they have much more fun playing with their own kind.”
Toto the chimpanzee – a success story
One of Creamer’s big success stories is that of Toto, a rescued chimpanzee who lived for 11 years in a sanctuary in Zambia after being rescued by ADI. He died of old age at the sanctuary this summer.
“When we picked up Toto in Chile, he had been alone without the company of other chimpanzees for over 20 years. He was stolen as a baby in Africa. He lived in a packing crate for over 20 years. How he survived that I can’t imagine. He was covered in cigarette burns, his teeth had been broken and smashed, all his gums were infected and he had been beaten and abused.
“So we rescued him. It took about a year or so … the striking thing was that while we were processing his paperwork, we got to know him. Toto was very tactile, he loved to touch you. He would take your hand and look at what you were wearing and your jewelry – and take it off if you weren’t careful.
“Unwary people would stand outside his cage and, women would put their handbags down and they would be gone in a flash. But you could have your handbag back if you went and got Toto the things he wanted. He would point to the drinks or fruit, and if you got him that you would get one item at a time back from your handbag.
“He was absolutely charming, and so gentle. It was really stunning how he could suffer that kind of abuse, but be so gentle and forgiving of human beings.
‘What we are gaining for these animals is what’s important‘
“We had a close relationship with Toto and he was very excited all the way through the journey to Zambia. When we unloaded him at the wildlife orphanage, he heard the other chimpanzee speak, and he spoke back. He never spoke to us again. He was back with his own kind, and humans had no interest.
“He was put next to another little rescued female chimpanzee, Madonna. They were put together the next day because he was holding her hand through the wire. He was so gentle they decided to let them get together and she rushed through and put her arms around him and buried her head in his chest.
“He wrapped his arms around her and laid his head on her head and he never looked at us again. Madonna was his world, chimpanzees were his world. And for us, it was exactly as it should be.
“As a rescuer you have to remember that we are really not important. What we are gaining for these animals is what’s important. And as much as we were privileged by the attention he gave us before he was back with his own kind, he didn’t need us anymore.”
Creamer speaks warmly, yet professionally, about Toto. Though clearly driven by love for animals, she has a calm, business-like approach to her work, something which has doubtlessly contributed to successfully changing the lives of many suffering animals.
Food animals … for Creamer, the choice is clear
Although animals in entertainment have been the focus lately, ADI works with all areas of animal welfare. When asked about their work with farm animals, Creamer says it can sometimes be a more complex issue.
But although it can be harder to get people engaged, working towards giving animals in industrial farming more space is important, she insists. The reason behind the success of the campaigns against animals in entertainment, and circuses in particular, is that it is not as complex as that of ‘food animals’.
“People want to turn away from it because it’s food. They are afraid that if they do something about they way food animals are treated it’s going to mean they have to change something in their own lives.
“Well they do, and if they don’t, they are part of it. They are complicit in what is happening to these animals while they remain silent. All that it needs for evil to continue is for good people to stand by and do nothing.”
The inevitable question: is she vegan? Finding out what happens to animals in laboratories made her think, she says. Learning about the issues with factory farming made her become vegetarian. The next step was cutting out animal products altogether when she realised that there are problems with dairy farming too.
“Obviously, being vegan is the logical step.”
By contrast, animals in entertainment are a ‘simple issue’
“Most decent people look at the way that animals suffer in traveling circuses and think it’s wrong. We get support from farmers, hunters, all kinds of people who are okay with using animals in other ways.
“I think it offends most people’s sense of what is an appropriate way to treat animals, and it has become a gateway campaign. People see this, and they start to see other issues.
“It’s a very basic premise and a simple set of circumstances that people can understand and agree with, regardless of how they feel about the concept of animal rights, or about eating meat or hunting, shooting, fishing animals or using animals in research.
After a lifetime of standing up for those who cannot speak for themselves, Creamer has certainly made a difference. To her, quality of life is about freedom and choice, and this applies to animals as much as ourselves.
“If we can’t protect those who can’t speak and stand up for themselves, then we are nowhere, really.
I interviewed Jan Creamer for an article published in The Ecologist in August 2014.