Harvey Locke: These shows can never meet creatures' needs

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The Independent Online

At any one time the British Veterinary Association (BVA) is dealing with many serious animal welfare issues. Slaughter without stunning, genetic problems in dogs, lameness in cattle, to mention just a few. All of which cause suffering in thousands, if not millions, of individual animals.

When the Labour Government consulted the public in December 2009 on whether or not to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses it made it clear that, at the latest count, there were just 38 individual animals in four travelling circuses in the country.

So why is the veterinary profession so concerned about this issue?

In response to the consultation the BVA strongly supported a ban because we believe the welfare of these 38 animals is emblematic of the way we treat all animals under the care of humans.

In 2006 the Animal Welfare Act enshrined into law what we know as ‘the five welfare needs’ – the need for a suitable environment, for a suitable diet, to exhibit normal behaviour patterns, to have suitable companionship, and to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

Under this framework it is hard to see how the needs of non-domesticated, wild animals can be met within the environment of a travelling circus; especially in terms of accommodation and the ability to express normal behaviour.

These animals, including lions, tigers, elephants, and zebras, have not been selectively bred for traits that would increase suitability for life in a captive environment. They spend the majority of their days confined in spaces that are much smaller than those recommended for the same species in zoos.

These spaces lack environmental enrichment and do not allow the animals to perform species-specific natural behaviour. When an animal is prevented from performing the normal behaviours that they are highly motivated to perform it can lead to stereotypic behaviour, such as pacing and swaying. It is widely accepted that this is a clear indication of poor welfare.

Many of the species we’re dealing with have high levels of intelligence and yet they spend just 1-9 per cent of their time engaged in performance and training activities – not enough to provide any meaningful mental stimulation.

Other factors associated with circuses, such as loud noise and the presence of human crowds, are likely to be stressful for non-domesticated animals. And inappropriate handling and training methods can cause pain and suffering, as witnessed in the recent case of Anne the elephant.

Unlike well-run zoos, which can contribute to conservation and education as well as being visitor attractions, circus animals exist solely to entertain people. Therefore, the ‘benefits’ of using wild animals in circuses simply do not justify the possible welfare risks.

It would be easy to dismiss this campaign and question the value of legislating to protect such a small number of animals. But fashions change and there is no guarantee that the number of wild animals in circuses won’t increase in the future.

Only last month in Parliament Defra Minister Jim Paice estimated that the number has already risen to “approximately 50”. It’s time to act now.

The veterinary position on this issue is grounded in our deep understanding of animals, but we’re not ignorant of the political arguments. In response to Labour’s consultation a massive 94.5 per cent of the 10,500 respondents agreed with a complete ban. It’s no secret that Defra under the Coalition was badly bruised by the forests issue. Surely it could do with an easy policy win that enjoys huge public support.

Harvey Locke is the president of the British Veterinary Association