The Coalition government today rejected a ban on wild animals in circuses in favour of a new licensing regime.
Environment ministers proposed inspecting and licensing each of the approximately 20 wild animals in English circuses to ensure they enjoyed “high welfare standards.”
The decision - disclosed by The Independent last week - contradicts previous statements by ministers that they were “minded” to introduce a ban.
The RSPCA said it was “furious” at the U-turn, which was announced the day after ministers faced Environment questions in the Commons.
With the support of the RSPCA and the British Veterinary Association, The Independent is calling for the Government to rethink its position and 15,000 people have signed our online petition calling for a ban.
Three circuses in England currently use non-domesticated animals such as tigers, zebras, camels and pythons.
Animal welfare organisations say constant travel in “beast wagons”, performances to loud crowds and enclosures smaller than those in zoos mean that they should be banned. The Great British Circus, Circus Mondao and Jolly’s say the animals are treated well and travel only small distances between shows.
Concern was heightened last month following undercover footage showing a groom at Bobby Roberts Super Circus beating the UK’s last circus elephant with a pitchfork.
In the aftermath of the row - which led to Anne the elephant transferring to a new home at Longleat wildlufe park -officials briefed newspapers that ministers would announce a ban on wild animals in circuses within weeks.
Today, Defra, launching a consultation, said inspectors would assess each animal’s transport, including how long they were trucked without rest, enclosures and their treatment by trainers and keepers.
Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for the Environment - whose preference for a ban is believed to have been over-ruled by Downing Street - said: “Most circuses choose not to feature wild animals in their shows, and I believe that most people would prefer not to see them performing in circuses.
“But where circuses do choose to show wild animals, people expect those animals to be kept in the best possible conditions.”
Bans on wild animals are already in place in Austria, Croatia, Israel, Bolivia, Costa Rica and Singapore.
Opinion polls have consistently shown strong support for a ban in the UK and a ComRes survey of 1,000 people last week found 71 per cent in favour.
Defra said that a challenge to the Austrian ban by a German circus cast doubt over the legality of a ban in the UK. Last year the European Commission rejected a legal challenge to Austria’s ban and said the issue was down to individual member states.
The RSPCA’s enior RSPCA scientist Dr Ros Clubb said: “We are furious that the government has done a complete u-turn on this issue. Introducing licensing conditions is not replacement for a ban – and it will create a huge amount of red tape which is completely disproportionate to the size of this tiny industry.
“Hiding behind a challenge to the Austrian government ban is a complete red herring as the European commission has said they are happy with bans on the use of wild animals in circuses in member states.”
Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh said: “This just adds more delay for Defra ministers to do nothing while the majority of the British people support an outright ban.”
The Independent and its supporters - the RSPCA, BVA, Born Free Foundation and Captive Animals’ Protection Society - will present the petition to Downing Street on Tuesday. The deadline for signing in Tuesday midday.
To sign, visit independent.co.uk/circusanimals