The government's failure to end cruelty to circus animals makes a mockery of the Animal Welfare Act
A coalition of animal welfare groups have written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Hilary Benn MP, criticising last year's report by the chairman of the Circus Working Group (CWG), Mike Radford.
The CWG had been commissioned by Mr Benn's department to examine the case for tighter controls on the use of animals in circuses.
The letter critical of the CWG report is signed by Animal Defenders International, Born Free Foundation, Captive Animals' Protection Society and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
It states that all four groups are "highly critical of the methodology and process employed for the CWG and the (perhaps inevitable) inconclusive findings.. We believe that a public and transparent political process must now be initiated in order to move on from the deadlock left by the CWG."
This criticism follows a recent Early Day Motion, so far signed by 53 MPs, which notes "with concern that the Circus Working Group disregarded substantial amounts of evidence on the welfare of animals in circuses.(and) believes that the report of the Chair of the Circus Working Group fails to provide reliable information on this subject; and urges the Government to maintain its commitment to ban the use of wild species in travelling circuses and to restrict and limit the use of domesticated species under a strict, accountable and open licensing system."
Following the CWG report, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is supposed to carry out an impact assessment on the use of performing animals in circuses. This assessment is due to consider whether to introduce an inspection system and to look at the effect of any regulations on the UK economy and the circus industry. A feasibility study is planned. It will be conducted by DEFRA-appointed vets, economists and zoo licensing inspectors, but no representative from any animal protection organisation has been invited to take part. Where's the balance?
Animal welfare groups are united in viewing the CWG report as deeply flawed.
The CWG report concluded that "there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments."
This was a curious conclusion. Comparing the well-being of captive circus animals with other captive animals in zoos and medical laboratories was never the issue. It is whether circus animals suffer physically and emotionally from the constraints of caging and the rigours of training and performance.
The CWG report also concluded: "Ministers do not have before them scientific evidence sufficient to demonstrate that travelling circuses are not compatible with meeting the welfare needs of any type of non-domesticated animal presently being used in the United Kingdom."
The claim that no scientific evidence exists is challenged by the RSPCA. It says that while there are no scientific studies explicitly concerning the harm caused to circus animals, well-documented research on the transportation of farm animals is a useful comparison and points to considerable suffering.
The CWG and DEFRA are out of step with public opinion: 80% of the population are against the use of wild animals in circuses, according to a 2005 MORI poll.
The public is backed by many MPs and peers. In 2006, Ben Bradshaw MP, a DEFRA minister, told parliament: "I sympathise with the view that performances by some wild animals in travelling circuses are not compatible with meeting welfare needs." He said the government wanted to introduce regulations under the Animal Welfare Act, rather than through primary legislation. This has not happened. The CWG report has kicked legislation into the long grass.
Look deeper at the origins and remit of the CWG, which was set up in response to the new Animal Welfare Act, and the reasons for its bizarre findings become clear.
A panel of six academics on the CWG reviewed the evidence submitted by circuses and animal protection organisations, but they did not meet as a group or visit any circuses. Moreover, the CWG had a restricted remit, to look only at transportation and housing needs. It did not assess the training of animals or the conditions and effects of their performances.
What is a circus if it is not a place where animals are trained to perform? Training and performances are key elements to consider when assessing the welfare of circus animals. To not do so is a bit like having an assessment of schools but not allowing inspectors to look at the methods teachers use to educate their pupils.
It has long been argued that the training of animals, which is done away from public view, is where most physical cruelty takes place.
In 1999, the UK's most famous circus owner, along with her husband, was convicted of more than a dozen counts of cruelty, and their elephant keeper jailed, for the violence they meted out to animals at their training centre. The evidence presented in this court case was ignored by the CWG.
A modern approach to animal welfare legislation should apply the precautionary principle, whereby those who want to use animals have to prove that no cruelty is involved. However, this was not the thinking of the CWG. The burden of proof was put on animal welfare organisations.
The Captive Animals' Protection Society (CAPS), of which I am a patron, turned down a seat on the CWG because it foresaw the problems the limited remit would cause.
The CWG report concluded that, ultimately, any ban on animal circuses would have to be a political, rather than scientific, decision:
"The overriding conclusion of this exercise is that our present state of knowledge about the welfare of non-domesticated animals used in circuses is such that we cannot look to scientific evidence for a steer in the development of policy; it is, ultimately, an entirely political decision. Once the relevant policy is decided upon, its implementation is essentially a question of politics and law; science, on this occasion, provides no relevant guidance as to the appropriate principle to be adopted."
This report sends contradictory signals. Parts of it stressed the importance of scientific evidence to confirm the need to ban animals in circuses; yet the report's conclusions suggest there was little scientific evidence to go on. The CWG can't have it both ways.
Animal abuse in circuses is being tackled by parliaments worldwide. Hungary recently joined Austria, Singapore and Croatia in banning wild animal circus acts. Why is the UK lagging behind? For a supposed nation of animal lovers, continuing to allow animal circuses makes a mockery of the Animal Welfare Act.
There are ten circuses remaining in the UK, using a total of around 200 animals; although the CWG only discussed the 47 wild animals and ignored the domestic species, none of whom are any more suited to a circus environment than their wild counterparts.
Over 20 circuses run successfully with entirely human casts, entertaining families with clowns, jugglers and dare-devil acrobats. There is still a place for the circus in entertainment, let's just leave the animals out of it.
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