I FELL out of love with the circus early, and I remember the moment almost exactly. In the 1970s, our family – like thousands of others – made an annual winter trail from Coatbridge to the Kelvin Hall Carnival in Glasgow.

On one side of the massive space, all the neon-lit, screaming, hydraulic fun of the fair. Hit tunes, lurid graphics, space rockets spinning around: 70s modernity all over the place. On the other side, the circus. In my memory, it was the full affair: there were acrobats, clowns, jugglers, “wild” animals and their trainers.

As a nascent sci-fi nerd, I was already fed up with circus “traditions” – the top hats, the pompous, old-fashioned hyperbolae. But it was completely speared through the heart when, on one trip, I got lost in the general carnival madness. I ended up in one corner of the hall, standing in front of some caged elephants, chained up and ready to perform.

The size of them, in a cage that barely contained them; the wet gleam of their eyes, the sheer stink of their bodies and faeces. All the imperial tinniness of the circus show became instantly even tinnier. The next year, I got my wheedling in early (“fed up with the circus, Dad”). Dad never missed the opportunity for a cost-saving – and we never went back.

So you’d think I’d be essentially delighted with the Scottish Parliament ruling this week. Scotland has become the first place in the UK to ban wild animals being used in travelling circuses (joining 35 countries globally, including 19 EU member states).

Our redoubtable environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, had some well-crafted lines in place: “This makes a clear statement to the world that the Scottish people respect the innate character of wild animals and will not tolerate their subjection to a nomadic lifestyle as a spectacle for entertainment.”

Hold on, says my inner pest. What exactly is the “innate character of wild animals”, then? Don’t most of these African-savannah creatures have a “nomadic lifestyle”, in any case? And in the age of LOLcats and dancing cockatoo videos on YouTube, precisely what is our objection to animals being “spectacles for entertainment”?

Before we consign the animal circus to the dustbin (or the manure heap) of history, let’s ask a few questions about what it can tell us about the relationship between humans and animals, good and bad.

As a parent myself, and when other options were exhausted, I tried once or twice to reconnect my own family with the circus. My daughters had inherited my aversion (with added notches on the dial), so it all quickly sputtered to a halt.

Fresh in my mind is the discomfort we all shared. Not just with the uniformed animal handler, using stick and voice to compel lions into a pyramid, or command elephants to rear up on their hind legs. But also from the obvious resistance of the animals themselves – sluggishly heaving themselves into position, or listlessly roaring their “rage” (on cue with lights and smoke).

I can still hear the faltering applause of the collected, retro-minded Yuppies around me. It sounded like a death-knell for the whole business.

But the long history of animals and the circus is complex, and worth some ruminating over. The barbarism of the “Circus Maximus” in the Roman Empire – celebrating superiority, both of man-over-man and man-over-beast – slaughtered lions, tigers, elephants and bears before thousands of spectators.

However, the animal circus as we know it – creatures performing under human control – came from a very particular historical moment: the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War (1756 -1763).

“The foundations for circus in Britain were laid at a time of imperial conflict, when large numbers of cavalrymen were being discharged from active service overseas”, says Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive.

“One of these, Philip Astley, chose to use his remarkable equestrian skills to exploit popular demand for public entertainment, and began showcasing equestrian expertise on a piece of land near Westminster, London. When this appetite for ‘trick riding’ showed no sign of waning, Astley expanded his show to include acrobats, clowns and other skilled performers inside a circular ring. The circus was born.”

Travelling menageries had been roaming these islands for fun and profit since the early 1700s, but the “wild animals” entered into the circus ring as the Imperial era deepened through the 19th and early 20th centuries.

There’s an obvious historical point here: the spectacle of exotic but tamed animals satisfied a popular appetite. That is, for stories of British mastery and superiority over the creatures of its dominions, natural as well as human. All the frock-coatedness and antiqueness of even its most recent versions is no accident (and who knows, it may be on the cusp of a comeback in dear old Brexitannia).

Enough right there to chuck the whole thing, perhaps. But note that our original 70s pilgrimage was to the Kelvin Hall “Carnival”. And as the anthropologists will tell you, carnival is a much bigger and older human phenomenon than the circus, whether using “wild animals” or not.

Our contemporary circuses – with Cirque Du Soleil as the brand name, but with many thousands of others, often plying their wares at each Edinburgh Festival – know exactly what carnival means.

To watch others reject or transcend accepted norms – whether social or bodily, defying taboos or gravity – is an entertainment human communities have needed even since we started to subject ourselves to the rigours of agriculture. The hard grind of organised life builds up frustrations that have to come out somewhere.

From this perspective, perhaps taking pleasure from watching trained and “husbanded” animals is not itself so surprising, given how much the practice has constituted our way of life (indeed, dogs, pigs and cows made up much of the cast-list for the early circus).

SO carnival, at least, is a long-standing human requirement. I accept Roseanna’s charge against circuses distorting the “innate nature of wild animals”. Yet I am sceptical that even when we sit before spectacles which aim to fully respect that nature, anything really improves.

One of the reasons I avoided watching David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2 this time round is my sheer frustration at its ineffectiveness. Decades of whispered commentary over remarkable sequences have done nothing to change humans’ destructive behaviour on this planet. Indeed many ecologists say we are already in the midst of another great “extinction event”. So much for the practice of “respect”.

However, we do seem to crave a life with animals, to be near to them. As EO Wilson says, humans have a “biophilia” which will always seek its outlet. Every day, my social media throws up another smartphone video of domestic pets doing crazy things with their human owners. No, they aren’t dancing elephants, labouring wheezily in a tent. But what is “innate animal nature” in these highly artificial circumstances? And what mammal is being trained by who?

Back to the circus. If you’ve even seen one, there no doubting the horror of the “elephant hook”. The curved barb at the end digs progressively deeper into the animal’s hide, as an element of their training. Anyone would cheer to imagine these pachyderms, and their other animal peers, retired and returned to their countries of origin (as many circuses are now doing).

Yet as I recall that elephant, stomping aimlessly in the fetid darkness at the back of the Kelvin Hall, it looms in my thoughts as a mystery, as much as a terrible indictment.

When will we ever get it right between the animals and ourselves? When will we stop flipping between hate and love, empathy and exploitation? I don’t know about you, but so many Generation Ys and Zs around us are going vegetarian or vegan this Xmas. Many young ones are attempting to re-establish the animal-human relationship on entirely different terms.

I’m not yet ready for that. But there’s trouble in the circus, metaphorically as well as literally.