Animal welfare experts yesterday called for the animals to be better cared for after some were found to be overweight, kept in poor accommodation and showing signs of psychological distress.
The investigation was carried out by the Circus Working Group, including representatives of the RSPCA, the British Veterinary Association and the Association of Circus Proprietors, which visited circusesround the country.
The group's report urges MPs to consider a range of options, from stronger control of circus acts to a complete ban on performing animals. Around 545 animals with Britain's 21 animal circuses are registered with the Home Office under the 1925 Performing Animals Act.
Dr Robert Atkinson, of the Wildlife Conservation Unit at Oxford University, noted that some performing lions "were so familiar with the act that they did not practise between acts". There were also complaints that some lionesses were overweight and one pony was suffering from head-collar sores.
But Tony Hopkins, of Gerry Cottle's Circus, said that while he welcomed the report, conditions had improved immeasurably over the past 10 years. "You can find ponies with head- collar sores anywhere you look," he said. "They ... rub against things and that doesn't necessarily mean they are being badly treated. I also understand that the so-called overweight lionesses were actually pregnant. ... Having said that I am sure that there is room for improvement in some places."
The group conceded that it had differences of opinion as to whether the animals' behaviour showed psychological problems. "However, the group has found clear indications of both physical and psychological abnormality in some circus animals, whereas others appear to be comparatively unaffected."
The group was also divided on what action to take, with some members, such as the RSPCA, calling for a complete ban on performing animals.
Roger Gale, the Conservative MP and member of the all-party parliamentary group for animal welfare, which commissioned the report, said: "Legislation is needed to lay down clear regulations to govern the accommodation, training, care and treatment of any performing animals."
John Cryer, the Labour MP for Hornchurch, backed a call from the campaigning group Animals Defenders, who were not represented on the committee, for an international passport or microchipping scheme for circus animals.
"There is growing realisation that the shows put on by circuses which abuse the animals under their control should no longer be regarded as entertainment," he said.Reuse content