The Government's failure to ban wild animals in circuses has been criticised by a former expert adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Raymond Ings, a specialist in elephant welfare who served on Defra's Zoos Forum for eight years, described the decision as "completely barking mad". He said circuses were "fundamentally unsuited" to keeping elephants, big cats, bears and other wild animals.
Mr Ings, who trained Government-approved zoo inspectors until last year, said: "When I heard this I was spitting blood. There is not an animal-welfare scientist in this country saying circuses could ever provide an environment for elephants.
"After the public has gone home the animals are chained up in beast wagons for hours. The environment is far too restrictive. The best zoos can meet the needs because they are static. Circuses can't, because you have to up sticks all the time and you can't give them the space."
As The Independent predicted earlier this month, Defra did a U-turn on its support for a ban last week and proposed new regulations that would instead see officials inspect and license every wild animal performing in the big top. Downing Street is understood to have blocked a ban because of concerns about introducing extra red tape.
The RSPCA said it was "furious". Three circuses, The Great British Circus, Circus Mondao and Jolly's, use about 20 wild animals, including tigers, zebras, and pythons.
The debate about wild animals in circuses was ignited again last month when undercover footage showed a groom at Bobby Roberts Super Circus beating Britain's last circus elephant, Anne, with a pitchfork. Anne was relocated to a wildlife park. But more elephants could be imported, as they were two years ago when the Great British Circus borrowed three from Germany.
Circus owners say their animals have adequate space and are not mistreated during training. But animal-welfare groups complain that the animals spend long periods confined in "beast wagons" or enclosures, which are much smaller than those recommended for zoos.
In the aftermath of the dispute over Anne, officials told newspapers that ministers would announce a ban within days. Opinion polls have shown around 70 per cent of the public supports one. Within 10 days of its launch, almost 18,000 people have signed The Independent's online petition calling for the Government to introduce a ban.
The campaign has the support of the RSPCA, British Veterinary Association, Born Free Foundation and the Captive Animals' Protection Society. Representatives of all five will present the petition to Downing Street tomorrow. The target is to reach 20,000 signatures by then.
Harvey Locke, president of the British Veterinary Association, which represents 12,000 vets, said: "The veterinary position on this issue is grounded in our deep understanding of animals, but we're not ignorant of the political arguments.
"In response to Labour's consultation in 2009, a massive 94.5 per cent of 10,500 respondents agreed with a complete ban. It's no secret that Defra was badly bruised by the forests issue. Surely it could do with an easy policy win that enjoys huge public support?"
To sign the petition, visit Independent.co.uk/circusanimals.