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Circuses blow their top at lion licensing plan

Owners say proposal is 'disrespectful' and could drive them out of business

A plan to force circuses to license all their lions, tigers and elephants – thrashed out after the Government shelved an outright ban on performing wild animals – could still drive many circuses out of business, owners have warned.

Circus representatives told ministers the compromise was "disrespectful", imposed unreasonable costs and would stop them hitting animals to control and train them. Notes from a secret meeting between the sides, obtained by The Independent on Sunday, show that circuses were also angered by a government press statement headed "Animals deserve our respect".

Animal-rights activists insisted the documents confirmed their "long-held concerns about the welfare of wild animals in circuses".

The official report of the meeting, between senior figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, three circuses, the Performing Animals Welfare Standards International and the Classical Circus Association, said the costs to circuses were too high and "unreasonable", given that a ban was still possible, and that the costs should be absorbed by the Government.

The document also reported that the circus delegates had complained that "no hitting at all ignores various circumstances (such as breaking up fights)", and that "keeping animals in exercise areas overnight [was] not possible or safe".

It added: "Animals have to be chained so that keepers can sleep. Tethers (chain or otherwise) are not only appropriate but vital. Elephants will sleep for five to ten hours every day as a minimum – [keepers] can't sit and guard them for that time."

One delegate, who asked not to be named, said: "We put forward constructive proposals, but there was no movement. They are asking us to pay to be licensed for three years and then banned at the end of it."

But Will Travers, chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, said the document showed that circuses "clearly want to continue to be able to hit animals under certain circumstances, to chain animals overnight and keep [them] in tiny spaces".

MPs called for a blanket ban last year, after well-publicised cases of animal cruelty in British circuses, but the Government initially opposed the move, fearing lawsuits from disgruntled owners. Robin Hargreaves, the president-elect of the British Veterinary Association, said: "The BVA has strongly supported a ban because we believe the welfare needs of non-domesticated, wild animals cannot be met within the environment of a travelling circus."

Martin Burton, owner of Zippo's Circus – which does not use wild animals – said: "There are animal rights activists who lie and cheat and cause harm, but it is the circuses that the Government comes after."