Buba the elephant can stay in the Netherlands

After a long dispute about her fate, the Cabinet has allowed Buba the circus elephant to stay with the Freiwalds, the famous German-Dutch family of circus artists. Carola Schouten, Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, announced the decision after most of the Parliament voted to support the motions of the CDA and PVV.

A circus act
For more than thirty years, the famous Buba, a 45-year-old female elephant from Zimbabwe, worked as the main act in the Freiwald Circus. But her performances came to an end in 2015 when the Cabinet banned the performances and traveling with circus animals. The ban led to circus animals being sold to circuses in countries where acts with wild animals are still allowed, or moved to zoos. But Buba’s case was not as easy as that.

An elephant always remembers
Although Buba has been out of work, she remained on the circus grounds, accompanied by camels, bulls, ponies, geese, pigs and dogs, among others, in the Limburg village of Beringe. Today, she is the last remaining circus elephant in the Netherlands. The question that remained until some weeks ago was regarding her geographical fate: would she have to spend her final phase of life in an elephant sanctuary in France, or would she be allowed to stay with her ‘human’ family, with whom she had lived for decades?

Sending her to France meant leaving her in a sanctuary for retired elephants from zoos and circuses. An elephant ‘haven’, 29 hectares in size, complete with a mud pool, barn, enough hay for a whole year, and a heated stable. But no matter how promising this option seemed, Buba’s family disputed the decision. Buba is not used to being around other elephants and the Freiwald family feared that she would languish without her human family, and maybe even become aggressive, if she was placed with other elephants in France.

Voting on Buba’s fate
There was no other suitable shelter in Europe for discarded circus animals, and there was no ideal shelter for Buba. Therefore, the Ministry of Agriculture had no other choice but grant an exemption for Buba until 30 June 2020. That date passed with no alternative found, with a final extension granted until January 2021. In the end, the decision was made based on what was best for the animal.

The PVV submitted a motion to create an ‘enclosure worthy of Buba’ somewhere in the Netherlands. The CDA pleaded through another motion for a permanent residence status with the Freiwald family. On Tuesday 1 December, the Lower House voted on Buba’s fate, and adopted both motions. For now, therefore, she can stay with the Freiwalds. “The best news of the day,” PVV leader Geert Wilders said. Still, the Minister has to consider how the motions can be implemented to guarantee the best care for Buba.

Animal rights activists were not happy with the decision. As Erwin Vermeulen of Animal Rights said: “That non-expert MPs want to condemn the African elephant Buba to an existence as a living advertising column for a practically bankrupt circus is nothing but populism.”

The greatest good
Regardless of the different views on what the best decision is, one thing remains clear: the way animals are treated has hugely changed in the last years. Circuses and zoos, once thought of as sanctuaries, nowadays are seen as perpetrators of animal abuse. So, deciding on the best solution for Buba was no easy task. The Freiwalds are not in the best economic position due to the corona crisis, so they will need financial support to take care of Buba.

Animal welfare coordinator Kevin van Geet, speaking on behalf of the family, said that they had invested at least € 300,000 of their own money in the care of Buba over the past five years. Therefore the Freiwalds plan to plead for a financial compensation scheme from the government. But according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, the family should still bear the costs of caring for the elephant themselves since the motions don’t state anything about a compensation scheme.

The question of where Buba will spend her last phase of life has an answer now. Hopefully, the best decision is for her to stay with her long-time circus family in the Netherlands. “It’s my life. She is like a child to me and grew up with my children,” Lutz Freiwald said in a heartfelt plea on Hart van Nederland, a Dutch daily news program.

Written by Bárbara Luque Alanis