Leading article: Time to end the show

The days have long gone, fortunately, when most Britons considered watching cockfighting or bear baiting a pleasurable way of spending some free time. It is high time that the sight of big animals cavorting for the pleasure of the public in circuses went the same way. It is deeply regrettable that Downing Street has apparently blocked plans to ban these performances, opting instead for an improved system of self-regulation on the part of circuses themselves.

Today, The Independent urges the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to reconsider this position, ban the use of big animals in circuses and stop their import for use in circuses in future. The fact that only a relatively small number of big animals is believed to be still engaged in these acts is neither here nor there. What is important is that we send a signal, making it clear that Britain no longer tolerates the inappropriate treatment of animals under the guise of entertainment.

It is shameful that a country that prides itself on its kindness to animals is falling behind the standard set in this field by several countries in the developing world – countries that make no such claims on their own behalf. Nor can the Coalition Government cite public opinion as an excuse for delay. Most surveys suggest that the overwhelming majority of people oppose the continued use of wild animals in circuses. Meanwhile, every reputable organisation working in the field of wildlife protection, including the RSPCA, believes that transporting animals round the country and training them to perform harms their welfare. Leaving aside important questions about the amount of living space they receive, and specific allegations concerning the ill treatment of certain animals, academic evidence suggests circus life by its very nature causes stress and damages their mental health.

A ban will, no doubt, be attacked in some quarters as the equivalent of a death sentence for circuses as a whole. This is nonsense. Most people who go to them wish to see human beings perform – people who are paid to do so and who can presumably leave and do something else if they wish. Performing animals enjoy no such liberty.