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Wild Animals in Circuses

Volume 637: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2018

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to prohibit the use of wild animals in travelling circuses.

In recent years, Members of Parliament have worked hard to prohibit the use of wild animals in circuses and I want to pay tribute to their efforts. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), my hon. Friends the Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Colchester (Will Quince), and, most recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster). I am also grateful to colleagues from right across the House for their support for the Bill.

As a child I remember my Grandad’s often repeated account of the travelling circus that visited our small village of Bootle in 1936. As a 14-year-old young farmer, it was his job to ensure that the performing animals had feed, water and bedding. The highlight of the tale was the mad elephant that escaped and ran riot up Bootle Main Street. As Members can imagine, in a small village this story, told by many across the generations, captured the imagination, but it also highlights how times have changed. What was acceptable in 1936 is no longer the case. Thanks to the likes of David Attenborough and documentaries about African elephants, I now think about how unhappy and frightened that magnificent creature must have been, and not about the excitement of a circus rolling into a small village.

More recently, in 2009, while visiting a Spanish town, my family and I saw big cats and monkeys contained in small beast wagons in a large car park occupied by a travelling circus. That experience instilled in me a desire to put an end to the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. My opinion is shared by the vast majority of the British public, and by my daughters who witnessed the animals’ cramped conditions. Thankfully, that region of Spain, Murcia, has now banned wild animals in circuses, as have many countries in Europe, including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus and Greece. More recently, Italy, Ireland and Scotland have followed.

In the UK, going to the circus to see wild animals being used for the public’s entertainment is no longer viewed as morally or ethically acceptable in our modern society. In 2009, the then Labour Government launched a consultation which revealed that a ban on wild animals in circuses was supported by 94.5% of those who responded to the consultation, and I am pleased that Members from right across the House are supportive of a ban. In years gone by, animal performances, when the travelling circus came to town, were hugely popular. They provided perhaps the only opportunity to see incredible creatures, such as elephants, big cats and bears, in close proximity. Today, though, we know better, and we can recognise that the needs of wild animals are not best served by a life in the circus. In fact, the use of wild animals in travelling circuses is not necessary for people to experience the joys of a circus performance. Animal-free circuses have all the thrills and excitement that people would hope to find inside the mystical big-top tent, but without a single wild-animal performance.

The success of Cirque du Soleil in London, Las Vegas and around the world—nearly 150 million people have paid to be amazed by acrobats and daring high-wire stunts without wild animals being involved—demonstrates the change in public opinion. Furthermore, wild animals are not naturally suited to the travelling circus life and may suffer as a result of not being able to fulfil their instinctive natural behaviour. In modern Britain, is it right that we allow wild animals to travel around the country from temporary enclosures to circus tent and back to a lorry for a journey on to the next town? What sort of a life is that for animals such as zebras and camels? Without space to forage and interact with animals of their own kind in the way that they would naturally, these wild animals cannot truly be said to be wild.

I do not doubt that the vast majority of circus keepers licensed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs care for their animals and rightly adhere to strict animal welfare standards. However, if wild animals are to be kept in captivity, they require the environment, care, facilities and cohabitation to exhibit their natural behaviour as they would in the wild, which is simply not possible on the road with a circus. This stance is supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association and many other animal health and welfare organisations that I have spoken to. As recently as 2011, with the case of Anne the Asian elephant, who was badly mistreated at her circus winter quarters, we have seen that homes for retired circus animals can be found. Longleat safari park took on the care of Anne and she is now living out her days there without having to perform or travel the length and breadth of the country.

Eighteen wild animals are currently owned by the two remaining circuses who use wild animals in their performances. This includes zebras, camels, reindeer and racoons, but the species and number of animals used by circuses change routinely. That highlights the problem with the reliance on the current regulations: if licensing conditions are met, there is nothing to stop more animals and different types of animals returning to the circus.

The House of Commons Library reported that in 2014, one circus in the UK borrowed three elephants from Germany to use in performances here. Without an explicit ban brought into law, there is nothing to stop elephants, lions and tigers coming back to the circuses in our local towns. Although people may have their own opinions about the ethics and morality of keeping animals in zoos and wildlife safari parks here in the UK, they contribute to educational research, breeding programmes and conservation efforts around the world. Most UK zoos have special links to national parks in Africa and South America to increase awareness of species protection and to sponsor anti-poaching efforts. Circuses that use wild animals in their performances add nothing to the understanding and conservation of wild animals and their natural environment.

Wild animals deserve our respect and should not to be in circuses, trained solely for the entertainment of crowds to perform tricks and acts that have no correlation to their natural behaviour. The British public over- whelmingly support a ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses, and bringing the law up to date is long overdue. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Trudy Harrison, Sir Roger Gale, Will Quince, Sue Hayman, Mark Pritchard, Dr Matthew Offord, Jim Shannon, Sir David Amess, Theresa Villiers, Zac Goldsmith Kerry McCarthy and Neil Parish present the Bill.

Trudy Harrison accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 March, and to be printed (Bill 175).