Crackdown ordered on use of animals in circuses

Margaret Beckett is a socialist and a feminist - but she's not making a big fuss about it. By Rachel Sylvester and Marie Woolf
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CIRCUSES which use animals are to face an unprecedented crackdown under new government guidelines on the prosecution of cruel big-top trainers, writes Marie Woolf.

Home Office ministers have instructed Whitehall lawyers to compile a list of laws that can be used against circuses which mistreat the animals performing in their acts. The Government is concerned that local authorities are not doing enough to prosecute cruel circus owners. A circular reminding environmental health officers and the police of the powers available to them will be sent to all councils in time for this year's circus season.

There are no specific statutory offences governing circuses, and prosecutors often have to resort to wildlife laws to protect animals. Ministers want to extend existing laws so that circuses have to comply with the same strict animal welfare rules as zoos.

Last week, a group of MPs from the influential Associate All Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare decided to back a ban on the use of all animals, including dogs and horses, in circuses in the UK.

The all-party group is backed by the British Veterinary Association, the Blue Cross and the RSPCA. Led by Labour MP Ian Cawsey, it made its recommendation after receiving a damning report on the circus industry. Many animals suffered psychological distress, were kept in poor accommodation and were overweight, the report found.

A ban on circus animals has the backing of several members of the Government, including the Sports Minister, Tony Banks.

The decision by the 120-strong group of MPs to back a ban, will bring about a national campaign to end the use of animals in circuses.

"There is no doubt that councils are not doing all they should to protect circus animals," said Mr Cawsey. "The Government's circular is an excellent step. The idea is to reassure environmental health officers that they have the legal basis for prosecuting circuses. It is now fairly clear that excuses for parading animals around the country for entertainment are gone, really."

The issue will be highlighted this week when Mary Chipperfield, the circus trainer, is sentenced after being found guilty of cruelty towards Trudy, a baby chimpanzee. Chipperfield was secretly filmed hitting the orphaned chimpanzee with a riding crop, kicking and slapping it. She declared "you can bloody well cry", when the animal started whimpering after its orange ball was taken away. The trainer could face up to six months in jail, a large fine or a lifelong ban on keeping animals.

The RSPCA has welcomed the government move and says the MPs' decision to press for a ban was a historic step.

"We are absolutely de-0lighted that the all-party group has backed what the RSPCA has been calling for over many years," said spokeswoman Charlotte Morrissey. "We feel that circuses cannot provide the right place for animals and that the time has come to stop them suffering."