The government were threatened last week with a High Court challenge after persistently refusing to implement a ban of wild animals in UK circuses.
Animal welfare groups The Captive Animal Protection Society (Caps) and the Born Free Foundation have posed the threat after accusing the government of inventing legal problems stopping a ban, which is supported by a large majority of MPs and the public.
The European Commission confirmed that the UK does not face legal barriers. Animal Defenders International (ADI) showed evidence of this, which they said the government did not publish.
In a government public consultation in 2010, 94% of 10,576 respondents voted for a ban.
In March 2011, the ADI released undercover video footage of Bobby Roberts Super Circus in Cheshire. It showed an elderly and arthritic elephant called ‘Anne’ kicked and beaten with a metal pitchfork, along with other animal cruelty, which sparked public interest.
Following this, Tory MP Mark Pritchard led a backbench debate in June and the vast majority agreed on a ban. The Guardian and The Independent also reported that David Cameron had ‘threatened’ Pritchard to vote against the ban.
The government responded to the vote saying they were investigating a legal battle faced by the Austrian government with a German animal circus that could not enter the country because of a national ban.
But the European Commission ruled that individual member states could make exemptions on animal welfare grounds.
Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted that the government is “pretending there are legal ‘obstacles’ – there aren’t.”
At a parliamentary debate, Liberal Democrats MP Julian Heppert pushed James Paice, the Environment Minister, for a decision. Mr Paice replied that although the government shares the “clear view of the House”, they must deal with the legal obstacles first.
Huppert later said: “The legal claims are largely unchanged from the debate in June. The time to act is now.”
A government spokesperson said they would use a licensing regime, which will check circuses meet welfare standards before they use wild animals. This is viewed with scepticism from MPs such as Labour’s Jim Dowd, who is campaigning with the ADI:
“It is well known that the Government has no real enthusiasm for a ban so they can’t really be accused of backtracking as it’s not a track that they, left to themselves, would have chosen to follow,” he said.
No cause for concern
However, the circus industry does not believe there is any cause for concern. Chris Barltrop of the Classical Circus Association said: “All species of animals can be kept appropriately in a circus environment, according to politically independent scientists.”
Bernard Bale, a representative of The Great British Circus claiming to be the ‘best circus with animals’, said the ban is media hype and animal rights groups are pressurising the government. He argued that circuses take care of their animals and are properly regulated.
He added that Martin Lacey, the circus’s proprietor, has seen animal activists vandalising circus property, which was ignored by police. He said during summer activists cut the water supply for the animals.
Chris Draper, Senior Scientific Researcher for Born Free, said the ban is not media hype and has been discussed for around six years by successive governments.
He said regulations instead of a ban would be “unworkable” as circuses move sites and replace acts. He also questions the standards by which circuses would be assessed.
Draper believes someone high-ranking in parliament does not want a ban and is trying to avoid implementing it.
Defra officials prevented Caps and Born Free from discussing a ban at a meeting at Defra on 14 December. In a letter to the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman on 23 December, Caps director Liz Tyson and Born Free chief executive Will Travers wrote: “The only sensible reason put forward by you as to why a ban cannot proceed is the presence of insurmountable legal obstacles. Our own legal advice has been overwhelmingly to the contrary. In these circumstances, we consider that it would be appropriate for the relevant legal obstacles to be properly determined by the UK courts…”
The Independent have set up a petition supporting the ban which has gathered over 32,000 signatures. The government have said they will make their final decision in July.