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Performing Animals

In Berlin, in 1900, Herr von Osten began training his horse, Hans, to count by tapping his front hoof. He had no idea that Hans was soon to become one of the most celebrated horses in history. A rapid learner, Hans soon progressed from counting to addition, multiplication, division, subtraction, and eventually the solution of problems involving factors and fractions. As if this were not enough, von Osten exhibited Hans to public audiences, where the horse counted the number of people in the audience, or simply the number who were wearing eyeglasses. Still responding only with taps, Hans could tell time, use a calendar, display an ability to recall musical pitch, and perform numerous other seemingly fantastic feats. The word spread quickly, and soon Hans was known throughout the world. He was soon dubbed Clever Hans.

Hans’ cleverness was not in his ability to verbalise or understand verbal commands, but in his ability to respond to almost imperceptible and unconscious movements on the part of those surrounding him. When Hans was given the question, the onlookers assumed an expectant posture and increased their body tension. When Hans reached the correct number of taps, the onlookers would relax and make a slight movement of the head – which was Hans’ cue to stop tapping.1

Clever Hans was not your regular performing animal, the ones traditionally seen in circuses. There is, of course, a movement to stop the use of lions, tigers, chimpanzees, elephants and so on in these forms of human entertainment. Indeed, at the time of writing, the SPCA has a public campaign against the exploitation of animals in circuses. Despite this (not to mention not infrequent deaths amongst trainers), they are still to be seen.

The Performing Animals Protection Act 19352 governs the exhibition and training of performing animals, as well as the use of dogs for safeguarding. The Act falls under the authority of the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

  1. It is a crime to exhibit, or train (or cause, or permit to be exhibited or trained) for exhibition any animal unless you hold a licence (for that animal) granted by the Magistrate of the district in which you reside.3

  2. It is a crime to use any dog for safeguarding unless you hold a licence.4

  3. It is also a requirement to have a certificate authorizing the exhibition, training or safeguarding in respect of the animals, and it is an offence to fail to comply with this provision.5

  4. Any police officer may enter premises or vehicles to inspect them, or the animals kept there (or trained, exhibited or used there) and to conduct enquiries. Any person who delays, obstructs or interferes with a police officer in the performance of these duties commits an offence.6

  5. Any person who conceals an animal so as to defeat a policeman in the exercise of his duties is guilty of an offence.7

  1. These two paragraphs have been reproduced (with minor adaptation) from “Essentials of Nonverbal Communication” by Mark L Knapp (Holt, Pinehart & Winston) 1980, pages 1 -2. The work is, well, essential for anyone interested in reading up on the topic – non verbal communication that is, not training horses to count. 

  2. As amended; the latest amendment was effected by Act 7 of 1991. 

  3. Section 8(1) read with section 1. 

  4. Section 8(1) read with section 1. 

  5. Section 8(1) read with section 3(1). 

  6. Section 5. 

  7. Section 5.