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By Josh Loeb
Defra has confirmed that it will draw up clear guidance to help define the word ‘circus’ after peers warned of ‘unintended consequences’ arising from a nascent ban on using wild animals in circuses.
Lord Gardiner, an under secretary of state at Defra, said the guidance would be published by 20 November this year – two months before the proposed ban on wild animals performing in travelling circuses comes into effect in England.
The government is introducing the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, which last month passed its second reading in the House of Lords, on ethical grounds rather than because of any evidence of existing welfare harms that such a ban would remedy.
Critics fear this could set a precedent, opening the door to future bans on other types of activities involving animals such as falconry displays or zoos.
Labour peer Baroness Mallalieu called the proposed ban ‘pure gesture politics’ and a ‘waste of time’, while the Green Party’s Baroness Jones called for it to go further.
‘Why does it not cover all animals in circuses – and why not animals in other places as well?’ she asked.
This ban has profound and even far-reaching implications
Veterinary crossbench peer Lord Trees said he would be supporting the government’s proposal – but he nevertheless warned of its ‘profound and even far-reaching implications’.
‘Her Majesty’s government have not introduced the bill as a result of welfare concerns,’ he said. ‘It is introduced on the basis of ethics … In that context, I submit that this leads us on to very contentious ground.’
He cited a briefing paper from Ron Beadle, a professor of organisation and business ethics at Northumbria University, which ‘argues that it is difficult on ethical grounds to single out animals in travelling circuses from animals involved in almost any other relationship with humans – such as, among others, zoos, displays of birds of prey and horse racing, through to eating meat and even keeping pets.’
He added: ‘If it [the term travelling circus] is not defined, I fear there is a danger that more extreme animal rights groups and clever lawyers will challenge various other activities under the umbrella term “travelling circus”.’
At present there are just two travelling circuses that tour in England containing wild animals. Between them, this pair of circuses owns 19 animals – six reindeer, four camels, four zebras, two racoons, one fox, one macaw and one zebu. They are licensed and must undergo inspections, as per an interim licensing regime set up to ensure the welfare of these animals.
Supporters of a ban acknowledge that only a small number of animals remain in circuses in England – but they say a ban is nonetheless of ‘emblematic’ importance. It sets the tone for how a civilised society should treat animals.
They also point out that the law as it stands still allows for the potential for a travelling circus to tour with lions, tigers, elephants and bears.
A BVA spokesperson said: ‘BVA has long campaigned for an end to the use of wild animals in circuses and is delighted that the government is making good on its promises.’
The RSPCA wants the government to eventually ban all animals – not just wild species – from being used in circuses.
RSPCA’s wildlife specialist Ros Clubb welcomed moves to try and define ‘circus’.
She told Vet Record: ‘We have called for a definition of a travelling circus so that there’s clarity as to when a circus is not a circus.’
She added that there had been problems in the past with circus attractions trying to rebrand themselves as educational events while still using animals in circus-type performances.
The government has said it does not view its proposed ban as having unintended consequences.
The use of wild animals in travelling circuses is already banned in Scotland, and Wales is set to introduce similar legislation soon – meaning Northern Ireland is likely to end up as the only part of the UK without such a ban.
Issues concerning captive wild animals are devolved, and the collapse of power sharing at Stormont means there is no government in Northern Ireland to bring in such a ban. •
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