Dr Ros Clubb: Government is out of touch on circus animals

Circuses represent an important traditional form of entertainment and culture but the days when it was acceptable to haul wild animals around in beastwagons to be gawped at and to entertain with unnatural tricks are long gone. Society has moved on, as has our understanding of what animals need.

Members of the public have consistently expressed a preference to stop using wild animals in travelling circuses and anecdotally many people are shocked the practice remains legal in the England. In this respect we lag far behind the five countries that have already banned the practice (Austria, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Israel and Singapore) and the 13 others that place restrictions on the types of animals that can be used (e.g. Bulgaria, Portugal, Slovakia).

The Government can be in no doubt where opinion lies. Of more than 10,500 analysed responses to its 2010 consultation, 94% favoured a ban, including representatives of zoo and veterinary professions . Perhaps another clear indicator is the overwhelming public response to the plight of Anne the elephant – the last elephant touring with a UK circus – who was recently moved to Longleat Safari Park. Times have changed and the public are more aware and demanding than ever of animal welfare standards.

Thanks to the field of animal welfare science we now have a far greater understanding of the factors that affect animals, both physically and psychologically. General conditions that align with good welfare across a wide range of species include freedom of movement; opportunities to perform highly motivated natural behaviours, like foraging or dust-bathing; enriched, complex and stimulating surroundings; having control over situations, such as being able to escape from frightening events like crowds or loud noises and the avoidance, where possible, of generally stressful experiences, such as transportation.

Such principles, and those from emerging science, are taken into account in all good modern animal care systems. Yet even with the best will in the world, such conditions are not feasible in travelling circuses, particularly for the most commonly used species.

In marked contrast, circus life for these animals consists of being housed in beastwagons (restricted to the maximum size of lorry permitted on roads) and small barren temporary enclosures for 90-99% of the day; enclosures are, on average, a quarter the size of those recommended for zoos . Some animals are simply tethered to a peg in the ground, unable to move beyond a few meters or socialise with others.

Loading and transport, which are well known stressful events even for experienced animals, occur on a weekly basis for the 5-10 months circuses travel around the country. The few researchers granted access to circuses report high levels of behaviours indicative of a welfare problem during transport: tigers repeatedly pace back and forth while elephants weave from side to side.

Making wild animals endure such conditions purely for our entertainment is no longer justifiable and existing legislation is not sufficient. With no prospect of improving conditions to an acceptable standard, mainly due to the constraints of travelling from site to site, it is high time the Government committed as others have done to end the practice in England once and for all.

Dr Ros Clubb is the Senior Scientific Officer at the Wildlife Department of the RSPCA