Comment: Time is running out to ban wild animals in the circus

By Jan Creamer

There was a time when the UK led the world on animal welfare issues. We were one of the first to end the farming of animals for their fur and the use of animals for cosmetics and tobacco tests. Sadly, we have lost our global leadership on other animal issue – spectacularly so on animal circuses. A staggering 27 countries have now introduced measures prohibiting such acts, leaving the UK lagging way behind.

Amendments to ban the use of animals in circuses were tabled during the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but were resisted on the grounds that the government would take action in its own time. It took images from Animal Defenders International of Anne the elephant being brutally beaten and chained to set the wheels of change in motion. MPs voted unanimously in favour of a ban in June 2011, and pledges promising action followed from successive ministers.

Since then, the coalition has committed to a ban, and repeatedly stated its intention, with David Cameron himself calling the practice "outdated" and insisting "we're going to do it".  A draft bill has already been published and scrutinised by MPs, with a planned implementation date of December 2015. We are ready to go, but without swift action the lions, tigers, camels, zebras and other wild animals currently made to perform in circuses will continue to suffer.

Embarrassingly, since the government committed to take action in 2012, six other countries have passed legislation. A lack of parliamentary time has recently been cited for inaction on this issue, but Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick secured a slot to introduce the wild animals in circuses bill on September 3rd and the bill has its second reading on October 17th. Although it's pretty rare that bills introduced in this way become law, given its cross-party backing and overwhelming support from the public, there is a real chance that it can reach the statute books before the general election.

The years of indecisiveness have already led to the return of big cats to British circuses and, if this opportunity to secure the much-awaited ban isn’t taken, then other animals could also return. It is worth remembering that, despite reassurance by circuses with animals, there is simply no way they can provide wild species with the environment they need to live a natural life.

The reality of what animals in circuses endure is only known thanks to undercover investigations by organisations such as Animal Defenders International, which recently revealed abnormal behaviour displayed by the big cats at British circuses, indicating compromised welfare and suffering.

It is clear there is no longer the public appetite there once was for these archaic acts, with public support for a ban consistently high and the number of circuses with wild animals at an all time low. In the last days of the Labour regime, a public consultation also showed that 94.5% of those responding backed a ban.

It may have once seemed like harmless fun, but having seen the behind-the-scenes suffering, we know this is certainly not the case. At a local level, over 200 councils have implemented bans of their own – many of which have been in place for years – but without a national ban, circuses can still perform with wild animal acts on private land.

Circuses can clearly succeed without wild animal acts and many do so, enjoying bigger audiences and avoiding adverse publicity. And there is no need to fear for what might happen to the animals following a ban, as Animal Defenders International has offered to help rehome them, as they have done in Bolivia and are doing at this very moment in Peru. 

If this bill doesn't pass before the election, it will fall to the next government to ensure that action is taken. There will be many competing priorities for legislative slots, but this is something which will be easy, very popular and will make a real difference to the animals involved.

Jan Creamer is president of Animal Defenders International.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.