Activists film 'shocking' cruelty at circuses

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A group campaigning for a ban on animals being used in circuses claims it has uncovered evidence of "shocking" cruelty in how performing animals are treated.

A group campaigning for a ban on animals being used in circuses claims it has uncovered evidence of "shocking" cruelty in how performing animals are treated.

Members of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, operating under cover, say they have footage of animals being mistreated in foreign circuses during a tour of Britain. The campaign group was behind secret filming which led to Mary Chipperfield, 61, a member of the well-known circus family, being successfully prosecuted in 1999 for causing unnecessary suffering to an 18-month-old chimp.

"We have new film which will shock a lot of people," said Tim Phillips, a spokesman for the group. It is planning to present the video next week at a meeting with MPs at which it will call for a draft Bill on animal welfare to be tightened to include a total ban on animals being used in circuses.

The group and its sister organisation, Animal Defenders International, claim that the number of circuses using animals has fallen from 25 to only four as a result of Mrs Chipperfield being exposed of cruelty. About 12 British circuses still use a total of 185 animals. These are mainly horses and ponies but also include 18 dogs, four geese, six donkeys, a snake, pigeons and budgerigars. Four circuses use exotic or wild animals, including one elephant, lions, zebras and llamas.

The campaign is aimed at the Government's proposed legislation to curb animal abuse, which was published in July in draft form and is expected to be introduced in the Queen's Speech in November. Under the Bill, circuses will be licensed to use animals by 2009 and open to statutory inspection. The penalty for mistreating animals will rise from a fine of £5,000 with six months imprisonment to a fine of up to £20,000 and up to a year in jail. It will also ban anyone under 16 owning a pet and will outlaw goldfish being offered as fairground prizes.

Ben Bradshaw, the minister in charge of the Bill, said it would not make it an offence to kill garden slugs, but he claimed that legislation to protect animals would last for 100 years. Many of its provisions are left open and can be changed or enacted years after the Bill reaches the statute book.

However, the campaigners say the measure does not go far enough. Their meeting at the Commons is being sponsored by the Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker. He said he would be supporting his party's policy which would ban all wild animals from circuses, but would not go as far as the animal-welfare groups in seeking a ban on domestic animals, such as dogs and horses, being used. The campaigners said it was necessary to ban all animals to stop cruelty during transit.

A security row over invitations which Animal Defenders sent out for its meeting next Tuesday at the Commons, could backfire on the group. An invitation to lunch was apparently signed by Tony Blair, but it was exposed by the Labour MP Barry Sheerman as a forgery. Yesterday, the group said the meeting was no longer being held at the Commons and another venue would be organised.