2022 has been a long and difficult year for many reasons. Though the threat of the pandemic subsided over the course of the year, new and unexpected perils reared their heads to replace it, such as the war in Ukraine, worsening effects of climate change, and an ever-spiralling cost of living crisis. As we crawled to the end of the year many people took comfort in one objective: to celebrate our first ‘normal’ Christmas since 2019. Though we certainly welcome the return to some semblance of normality for everyone who has been living through such uncertain times over the past few years, a normal Christmas means business as usual for those who make their money by renting out live animals to be used as props in festive events.

Freedom for Animals’ Festive Events Campaign has been running for six  years now, and our objective is to convince events that have hired live animals, such as reindeer to pull a sleigh, donkeys to feature in a nativity, or camels in a parade, to cancel their use of live animals and host compassionate events that utilise technology or the skills and talents of consenting human artists only. We don’t want to ruin anybody’s celebrations, we simply and strongly believe that Christmas is better without animal abuse and exploitation. The previous two years had seen many events cancelled altogether due to COVID-19 concerns, and 2022 was the first festive season with no such cancellations. This meant we had our work cut out for us.

The campaign got into full swing early. Normally we don’t see events happening until around November time, but this year we got our first report of an event using reindeer in mid-September! Not only that, but it was an event that had already happened. One of our dedicated supporters sent in video and photographic evidence that an event called ‘BusFest 2022’ has a Winter Wonderland area, in which reindeer supplied by a company called Smart Trees Ltd. were being kept in a small enclosure. Furthermore, the video evidence clearly showed the reindeer being dragged by their antlers up to the railing so that visitors could touch them. We wrote to BusFest to inform them of the health and welfare implications of exposing reindeer, who are semi-wild and sensitive animals, to these kinds of environments and experiences. Their response was simply “I am sure that, as the experts in keeping, rearing, handling and showing reindeer, they [Smart Trees Ltd.] know what they are doing." 

This is the kind of response we get from many event organisers who are taken in by the reindeer hire industry’s claims that the animals are perfectly happy to participate in the events, and they suffer no negative consequences. If they were perfectly happy they wouldn’t need to be dragged into interactions, and if there were no negative consequences experts including veterinarians and the RSPCA wouldn’t be calling for an end to reindeer exploitation in festive events. 

“The animal protection community has no reason to misrepresent the effects these events have on reindeer, but the reindeer hire industry does: profit.”

From September onwards the hard work continued. We took on two wonderful volunteers, Lucy and Norina, to help with the considerable task of researching events that have previously used live animals to see if they were planning to do so again this year. In total we identified 266 events that may be planning to use live animals, and wrote to 219 of them to enquire as to their plans and to urge them to go animal-free this year. There were a few events that we didn’t write to during the course of the campaign, simply because we found out about the events after they had already passed. However, every event that exploited live animals in 2022 will be getting a letter this January urging them to go animal-free for 2023. If you have seen animals being used in festive events recently, our reporting tool is still available for you to let us know so we can include them in our last emails for the 2022 campaign.

Alongside our independent letter-writing mission this year, we teamed up with our colleagues at OneKind, Animal Aid, and Born Free Foundation, to send a joint letter to events using reindeer. Signed by the directors of all 4 charities, this letter demonstrated to event organisers that the animal protection community stands united in opposition to the exploitation of reindeer in the name of entertainment. 62 of these letters were sent in 2022 and we intend to follow up this month with further letters to urge those that have exploited animals this year to choose more compassionate entertainment in 2023. This partnership between the four charities will not end there and we will continue to work together to support each other beyond Christmas to speak in one voice for animals exploited across the UK and beyond.

Not only did we have professional support from within the sector, but our campaign could not have worked without the impact made by our loyal supporters. Dozens of members of the public wrote to us to alert us to events that were planning to use live animals allowing us to contact the organisers to intervene, and set up online actions in which supporters could directly contact event organisers themselves to demonstrate the strength of public opposition to using live animals in events. More than 2,500 emails were sent by supporters over four online actions - a powerful statement against animal exploitation. Three events cancelled their use of live animals due to public backlash: a win for our supporters, but more importantly for the animals. These victories don’t save them from their miserable lives of captivity and forced performance, but what they do is grant them a reprieve in their often gruelling tour schedule, and demonstrate to event organisers and the animal hire industry that the public today will not accept abuse and exploitation.

Beyond the effect we have had in this year, we can see that our festive events work is having a long-term benefit for animals. This year we identified 117 events that had previously exploited live animals choosing to be animal-free this year. One event organiser that hired reindeer last year (who would prefer to remain anonymous) told us when contacted Last year was a major learning curve for us … [the reindeer] seemed very stressed, before we heard from your group we didn't realise how traumatic it was for them.” We can see that people are becoming aware of the reality of forcing animals to be used as props, and the public is saying no to this kind of exploitation louder and louder every year.

Our work, however, is far from over. There were also 121 events that used live animals, predominantly reindeer, and this sad tradition must be brought to an end. We will continue to fight alongside our colleagues and supporters for animal liberation in the festive season and beyond. Christmas is a time when we hear ‘Peace on Earth’ in carols, and see it written on decorations everywhere we go. We are committed to that goal not just for humans, but for all the creatures with whom we share this planet.

Scroll down to subscribe, donate what you can, or become a Freedom Champion to be part of the movement.

- 5th January 2023