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The Circus Act: The Archaic Use of Animals for Entertainment

02/06/2016 15:17 | Updated 02 June 2016

Dancing bears, performing monkeys and big cats jumping through hoops of fire...

These all sound like something you might see in an old film rather than a modern day circus tent. But astonishingly, and to the disbelief of many, using animals as entertainment in circuses does still happen, and in the UK too.

Zebras, camels, a fox and a raccoon are among the animals being used in two licensed circuses in England at the moment. In Ireland, elephants and big cats are being used again this year and at present it is legal to use any animal in English circuses as long as the circus is licensed.

I bet you didn't know that, did you?

Indeed, not many people do. I spoke to a number of friends, colleagues and family members before writing this blog and was shocked to hear that hardly any of them knew that it was still legal to use animals in circuses. Perhaps this is just one of those news stories that passed us by, or perhaps we all assumed that this inhumane practice was a thing of the past - for our ancestors who didn't understand animals in the way that we do now.

Having done some research, it is clear that there are some standards that circuses need to meet to be able to keep and use wild animals. What's worrying is that the UK isn't united on these standards at all.
Last year, there was a lion and tiger act which was touring Wales, after allegedly being deemed not to meet the standards required to gain a licence to tour England.

England is the only country in the UK to have a licensing regime but even so, all animal welfare organisations were strongly opposed to the implementation of licensing as it was argued that this move simply legitimised a practice which, by its very nature, cannot meet the welfare needs of wild animals.

This topic was brought to my attention recently in a campaign update from the Born Free Foundation, who have been campaigning along with many other animal welfare organisations and the UK's professional veterinary association (the BVA), to ban the cruel practice.

And it feels like we could have come close. There has been a Bill which proposes a ban in the use of wild animals in circuses in draft form for around three years. This Bill is so widely supported in both Houses that many MPS have said that the proposal could easily pass through the parliamentary process in just a matter of days.

So why on earth hasn't it been passed yet?

The answer is simply down to a lack of Government action. Despite promising to act, it has repeatedly failed to do so. If the Government bill was properly brought forward and debated, the ban of using animal acts in circuses could be carried forward and made law.

Instead, various private members' bills (PMBs) have been introduced - bills which rarely become law as, unlike most government bills, they can be blocked by just one MP. PMBs are instead used as a slot for discussion - a way to bring something to the attention of the House of Commons with the knowledge that they will very very rarely actually change anything.

The most recent PMB proposing to ban wild animals in circuses was brought forward by Jim Fitzpatrick. Interestingly, the government were quick to openly state their support for the bill, but have repeatedly failed to give it parliamentary time to be debated and brought forward properly.

So one has to question, how supportive are they really?

In 2013, a PMB was put forward to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. It has been repeatedly blocked, and I understand that among those blocking it was Andrew Rosindell. He said: "The circus is a Great British institution, which has proved that it has the high standards of welfare which are rightly expected of it..."

I wonder if limited space, restricted social opportunities, regular transportation and training to perform unnatural behaviours for audiences is classified as a 'high standard of welfare' for animals. Not to mention the fact that many of these animals belong in the wild, roaming free, and a good many of species used in circuses are actually endangered, or close to being endangered. We should protect them in their natural habitat or at least in protected reserves, rather than locking them in cages and making them perform for our selfish benefit.

Perhaps we can look on this positively. The fact that there are only two circuses now operating with wild animals in England is indicative of how this practice has fallen out of favour.

In March 2016, there were news reports of protests and even mini riots in Dublin, at the site of Belly Wein Circus which uses wild animals in its acts. Protesters were apparently incensed after spotting pictures online of elephants grazing in a nearby field. Although animal rights group ARAN called for calm over the clashes, they also urged the government to intervene and place an immediate ban on the use of animals in Irish circuses, warning that the country is now being used as a dumping ground for international circuses that have had to move as a result of banks coming into play in Austria and Holland - where Circus Belly Wien were previously based.

These are protests that happen and will continue to happen across the UK if a ban is not introduced. It's clear that the appeal of watching live animals parade unnaturally around a circus ring is diminishing.

Audience numbers at circuses using wild animals are apparently very small - although circuses will beg to differ, often reporting full houses. I find this very hard to believe when there are other amazing circus acts touring the UK who are talented and energetic enough to be able to entertain crowds, without having to use animals to do so.

Hopefully soon a ban will be brought forward and made law. Across the United Kingdom, progress is slowly being made.

Previously, Welsh officials had said that they would like to join England in a joint ban, but in mid-October, the Deputy Minister for Farming and Food for the Welsh Assembly announced that, in light of the ongoing delay in England on this issue, Wales is considering acting alone to ban wild animal circuses.

In June 2015, the Scottish Government published the results of its public consultation on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses - an overwhelming 98% of respondents supported a ban.

Northern Ireland has so far, made no firm commitment with regards to the use of animals in circuses. At present, there are two animal circuses which regularly travel to Northern Ireland during their season and have been the site of many violent and passionate protests against the practice. They are currently consulting with counterparts in the Republic of Ireland to consider taking a joint approach on the matter - although it's not clear yet what that might be.

And in England, the UK Government promised that it would introduce a ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses by the end of 2015. Unfortunately, it's now 2016 and no such ban exists...

We can only hope those in positions of power come to their senses. With so many animal species endangered globally, it hardly seems fair to force wild animals to learn unnatural tricks purely for our entertainment. Often enough, we're a clever species. Humans have learnt to create a whole realm of things to keep us entertained from television to books to travelling or exercise. Surely we don't need to cause torment to another living thing on this planet, just for our own interests too.

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