Downing Street has blocked plans by ministers to ban lions, tigers and other wild animals from performing in circuses, according to animal welfare groups.
For 12 months ministers at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have repeatedly indicated their support for stopping wild animals performing tricks in the big top, but No 10, which wishes to reduce Government regulation, is understood to have vetoed the decision during the past fortnight.
Ministers are expected to announce a system of self-regulation by circuses within days.
Animal welfare campaigners, who say concerns about the size of enclosures, constant travel and loud crowds mean circuses should not keep wild animals, are furious at the U-turn. With the backing of the RSPCA and the British Veterinary Association, which represents 12,000 vets, The Independent today launches a campaign calling for the Prime Minister to rethink and announce a timetable for a ban.
One would ensure that circuses cannot use tigers or zebras now and rule out the future importation of species such as giraffes and bears, which are used in foreign circuses but are not presently on tour here.
Amid widespread public disapproval, the number of circuses using wild animals has fallen steadily from 20 in 1997 to three today. They use more than 20 animals. The Great British Circus is touring with at least five tigers and two camels, and is breeding lions for future performances. Peter Jolly's Circus has four pythons, a zebra, a camel and one horned African cattle called an ankole, while Circus Mondao has two zebras and two camels. All three circuses say their animals are well looked after, travel only short distances and are not harmed by their trainers.
Groups such as the RSPCA say scientific evidence suggests they have only a quarter of the minimum recommended space they would have in zoos, and that their training, transportation and performance is likely to damage their mental wellbeing.
Defra ministers have tended to agree. Labour's Ben Bradshaw announced his intention to ban wild animals from circuses five years ago but it never happened, prompting his successor Jim Fitpatrick to say he was "minded" to introduce a ban last March, after the idea was backed by 94 per cent of more than 10,000 responses to a government consultation.
Since the general election, Conservative ministers have frequently said they are "minded" to back a ban.
Animal welfare organisations say the row over the publication last month of pictures showing a trainer at Bobby Robert's Circus beating Anne the Elephant gave the Government a "perfect opportunity" to act. Yesterday, Defra said of its impending announcement: "We can't really comment on what it's going to cover."
Six countries – Austria, Croatia, Israel, Bolivia, Costa Rica and Singapore – have already banned all wild animals in circuses, while partial bans are in place in the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and India. Harvey Locke, president of the British Veterinary Association, said: "Although it affects only a small number of animals, the BVA feels their welfare needs and the needs of future animals could not be met adequately by the environmental conditions of a travelling circus. We would urge the Government to go ahead with a ban."
Liz Tyson, director of the Captive Animals' Protection Society, said: "From an ethical standpoint, there is no justification for people to teach animals tricks or to force them to perform for our entertainment. We regularly get people saying to us: 'I can't believe this is still legal.' People make the assumption that we have got the highest standards for animal welfare in the world but the reality is that we are falling behind – Bolivia introduced a ban on the use of all animals in circuses in 2009."
Sophie Coles, spokeswoman for Peter Jolly's Circus said their animals were well looked after. The circus did not use lions or tigers but could consider using them in future, she added.
She said: "We travel short distances, usually no more than 20 miles. They [the animals] come out and they just go into a field. They are in their travelling lorries for a short time. It's in our business interests to look after them."
A spokesman for Martin Lacey, who runs the Great British Circus, said: "If there was anything wrong, the RSPCA would prosecute, the same as anyone who keeps cats or dogs. He has been in the business for more than 40 years. He has never had a problem. The message to all the animal welfare people is instead of going to the papers, go through the proper channels."
He added: "The last Government was talking about it. They're always talking about it."
To sign the petition calling for a ban on wild animals in circuses visit: http://www.petitionbuzz.com/petitions/circusanimals
Why ban wild animals in circuses?
They have less space than they have in zoos, travel the country in cramped transportation and perform in front of loud crowds. In 2009, Bristol University reviewed the scientific studies and found many animals, particularly large wild ones, exhibited repetitive behaviour such as repeatedly pacing. They concluded: "We argue there is no evidence to suggest that the natural needs of non-domesticated animals can be met through living conditions and husbandry offered by circuses."
What species would be banned?
Elephants, lions, tigers, zebras, crocodiles, camels and other wild animals. The ban would not affect domesticated species such as dogs and horses.
What would happen to the animals?
The RSPCA is very confident it and other groups could rehome the 20 or so wild animals used in circuses in sanctuaries, private collections and wildlife parks where they would have more space and less stress. Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire took in Anne the Elephant last month within days of footage showing her being beaten by her circus trainer.
Does the public support a ban?
Yes. Polling by reputable organisations has repeatedly shown widespread support for a ban. Over the past 10 years the level of support has ranged from 63 to 80 per cent. During the public consultation published last year, 94.5 per cent of respondents supported a ban.
What does the Government say?
Ministers at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have repeatedly said they are "minded" to back a ban. Yesterday Defra said it would not express its intentions before its announcement, expected in two weeks.