Comment: The show must not go on for wild animals in the circus

By Liz Tyson

To the delight of animal protection campaigners around the country, the government has published draft legislation to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in England. The legislation is due to be implemented on December 1st 2015.

For those unfamiliar with the issue, you would be forgiven for thinking that a policy proposal to prevent tigers, elephants, camels and zebras spending the best part of each year living on the back of lorries as they are moved around the country and forced to perform unnatural and demeaning tricks for paying audiences would have been fairly non-contentious.

Indeed many people are shocked to discover that it has not already been prohibited here in the UK as it has been in other countries such as Austria and Bolivia. The call to ban has long had the backing of the general public, with opinion polls consistently showing support for a complete prohibition and 94.5% of respondents to a public consultation on the issue calling for the same back in 2010.

Perhaps even more tellingly, figures provided by the circus industry and published by Defra last year showed that visitor numbers to circuses using wild animals had more than halved in just five years. There are currently just two circuses that continue to use wild animals in England and reports have suggested that at least one of those businesses is struggling to fill seats as people vote with their feet and stay away.

But, despite the decision to ban being referred to today by one MP as quite simply "common sense" and the overwhelming backing of experts, the public and members of parliament, the process which led to the bill being published has been anything but simple. Indeed, it has taken six years and has included working groups, public consultations, parliamentary debates and even the threat of judicial review to get to this point.

In recent years, there has been firm and outspoken support for the ban from MPs who have played an instrumental role in ensuring that the demands of the public, and the needs of the animals, were fulfilled. For reasons which remain unexplained, this support was often met with apparently determined opposition from within the government itself. Mark Pritchard MP, for example, notably stuck his head above the parapet during the 2011 Parliamentary debate on the issue and openly accused No 10 of attempted coercion on the matter.

Whilst the decision to ban was announced last March, those campaigning for the change remained concerned as the government also committed to a costly and convoluted licensing regime which, it was claimed, would protect animal welfare in the intervening period as a ban was developed. However it was agreed by all leading animal welfare organisations working on the issue that this unwieldy stopgap would do nothing to provide for the complex behavioural and physiological needs of wild animals for the simple reason that their needs can never be met in the travelling circus environment.

Despite these and legitimate concerns that the regulations were unenforceable, raised during their passage by Tom Harris MP, they were passed and the regime came into force in January of this year at a reported cost of around £300,000 to the taxpayer.

Given the somewhat arduous process followed in order to reach this point, it was perhaps understandable that campaigners remained cautious as it was reported yesterday that the bill would finally be published. Each government announcement that purported to take a step in the right direction had thus far contained some important caveat which had the potential to derail the campaign altogether and concerns remained that this would be no exception.

In 2011, it was announced that a ban was desired but legal obstacles prevented it from being introduced.

In 2012, a ban was confirmed but no amount of questioning would see a commitment to an implementation date.

After stating a commitment to ban, the government introduced a licensing regime which appeared to be anything but temporary. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, on reading the documents published today, to see that both campaigners and government finally appear to be in agreement.

That the earliest implementation date is December 2015 remains a point of contention but, on the whole, it seems that actions may finally be catching up with promises.

Whilst there are still two years to wait before the door is firmly closed on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in England, the statement included in the documentation released by Defra today offers some hope. It says "we should feel duty-bound to recognise that wild animals have intrinsic value, and respect their inherent wildness and its implications for their treatment".

Perhaps there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel on this long-fought campaign. A ban cannot come soon enough.

Liz Tyson is the director of Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS) and is a PhD candidate at the University of Essex, School of Law.

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