Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Animal in Circuses: Regulation Not Banning

“Good regulations based on internationally accepted standards for animal care and transport are the most appropriate way to ensure high quality animal care while at the same time preserving the rich and rewarding classical circus art form for the benefit of circus families, their animals and current and future generations of Europeans.” H.S.H. Prince Rainier III of Monaco
In April 2013 the UK Government announced that it intended to ban circuses with wild animals by 2015.

Logically, any basis for a ban on animal keeping should be assessed on the available evidence that relates to the actual welfare of the animals contained within these enterprises.  Unfortunately, despite the government conceding that there is no such evidence, the UK government has given in to the propaganda of the animal-rights movement and wishes to ban wild animals in circuses on dubious 'ethical' grounds.  

 "...The 2007 Radford Report on circus animals concluded that there was insufficient scientific evidence to demonstrate that travelling circuses are unable to meet the welfare needs of wild animals presently being used in the United Kingdom. That position has not changed. Consequently, we are now looking at the means by which a ban could be introduced on ethical ground..." 

WRITTEN MINISTERIAL STATEMENT. Minister of State for Agriculture and Food (James Paice) 1 March 2012
I have been involved in the care of animals for over 40 years in zoos and wildlife parks both in the United Kingdom and The Netherlands and am currently an international zoological consultant and also a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.  Moreover, I am familiar with a number of trainers and owners of animals in various circuses in the UK and Europe.

It has always been my contention that circuses with animals should have regulation of their care and handling of animals as is the case in many European countries which now includes the United Kingdom since 2012.

Welfare of Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (England) Regulations 2012

However, I have never supported a ban of animals in circuses as from the scientific evidence (and from personal observation) this seems both unnecessary and unfair to responsible circuses that do take their welfare obligations towards their animals seriously. There have been two reports commission on the welfare of animals in UK circuses.

The first was undertaken by Dr Marthe Kiley-Worthington and published in 1990 with the financial support of the RSPCA and The Universities Federation of Animal Welfare (UFAW).  

Dr Kiley-Worthington spent some 18 months studying all aspects of animals in circuses, including making detailed quantitative recordings of their behaviour for over 3000 animal hours Her conclusions were that circuses were by their nature not cruel and that any deficits in the husbandry of the animals within these environments could be addressed without the need of banning such enterprises.

To quote her:

"..there is no reason why circus training, any more than any other animal training, of its nature causes suffering and distress to the animals, or should be considered ethically unacceptable" (Kiley-Worthington, 1990, p. 142).”

Dr Kiley-Worthington’s report ANIMALS in CIRCUSES and ZOOS is HERE

Dr Kiley-Worthington's Paper for the UFAW 1989 Animal Training Symposium is HERE

To date
, Kiley-Worthington's research remains the only empirical long-term research undertaken on animals in UK circuses.

It should also be noted that in the United States Dr Ted Friend has also researched in the welfare of wild animals in circuses and his scientific view can be found HERE.

A further circus animal welfare report was commissioned by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in 2007 and stated:

“A ban on using wild animals in travelling circuses because of welfare concerns is not supported by the scientific evidence”  
They concluded that there was "little evidence" that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses was any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments.

Direct link to the DEFRA report HERE

The Dorning, Harris and Pickett Survey

In 2015 the Welsh assembly decided to commission Professor Stephen Harris of Bristol University to review the welfare of wild animals in circuses. This was controversial due to Harris and Dorning having previously worked for various animal rights organisations. Harris had also previously published a paper condemning wild animals in circuses. Therefore the objectivity of any review was questionable.

The review actually was a survey sent to interested parties. Unfortunately, it contains many loaded questions and some of these demonstrated that the researchers had a limited understanding of animal training or operant conditioning. At no time was any actual empirical research undertaken directly observing animals in circuses and assessing their welfare.

When the reviews published its conclusions were not unsurprisingly negative about the welfare of wild animals in circuses and recommended that they should be banned.

One of the experts that Harris et al cited was Dr Ted Friend in the United States who actually studied animals in circuses and had published his research in peer review journals. Dr Friend was unimpressed with the results of the survey and wrote a damming letter to the Welsh Assembly complaining that his work had been misreported and distorted by Harris et al. Letter linked HERE.

It should be further noted that Professor Harris has now taken early retirement from Bristol University for reasons that are unclear. It should also be noted that he and his fellow author of the survey are supporters of the animal rights industry and not an objective independent scientists. In fact, his involvement as an "independent witness" with the animal rights industry led to a court case he was involved in being dismissed by the judge citing that you did not consider that Professor Harris was an independent and objective witness.

As it stands Dr Kiley-Worthinton report (which involved her spending many months directly observing animals in British circuses) remains the most comprehensive empirical research into the welfare of these animals.

More background details regarding this survey can be found HERE.

It certainly is right that people should be concerned about the welfare of animals in the care of humans but as stated these concerns do need to be supported by proper objective research.  Unfortunately the debate about animals in circuses, despite the above-cited research, has become incredibly polarised and emotive and much of this is due to the ideology of animal-rights not the science of animal welfare. 

The Parliamentary Progress of a Ban  

In the Queen's speech on 4 June 2014, no mention was made of the introduction of any legislation to ban wild animals in circuses. Although there were attempts made by MP Jim Fitzpatrick to push for a ban via the Ten Minute Rule Bill. This failed numerous occasions when it was presented due to objections by MP's Andrew Rosindell, Philip Davies, and Christopher Chope.  Since the UK general election in May 2015, there has to date been no more action to introduce a bill to ban wild animals in British circuses by the government. In February 2016, MP Will Quince attempted to use the Ten Minute Rule to independently introduce his Wild Animals in Circuses (Prohibition) Bill but this failed.

At the beginning of 2018, both the Irish government and the Scottish assembly announced a ban on wild animals in circuses.  The Scottish government stated that the ban was based on "ethical" grounds as, like the British government's position, there was no scientific evidence to ban based on animal welfare considerations.

In January 2018 Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment, announced that wild animals in the circus would be banned "when parliamentary time allows" but within a time frame of a year.

In March 2018, Member of Parliament, Trudy Harrison, introducing their own legislation via the Ten Minute Rule for a ban on wild animals in circuses.  It has been opposed on it's second reading so its likelihood of becoming law is open to question at this current time.


Excerpt from a German TV show, where a scientific experiment was conducted by Dr Immanuel Birmelin to see if lion trainer Martin Lacey Jnr's animals suffered from stress when in transit from their booking at the 2010 Monte Carlo Circus Festival.  The experiment appears to debunk the fundamental argument put forward by the opponents of animal circuses. Contrary to the opinion of the RSPCA and others the science seems to show that in this instance these circus animals do not experience high levels of stress when being transported over long distances.  Dr Birmelin also conducted research with circus elephants which can be found HERE.


Since originally writing this post a number of my zoo colleagues have questioned my position on the use of animals in circuses. I have been aware of this position of friends and colleagues within the zoo industry for a number of years and I think it is important that I qualify my position.

Historically, there had always been a mutual exchange between the zoo and circus world. In the last number of decades, any form of cooperation or assistance has officially melted away. To the point that professional zoo trade bodies such as the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) now prohibit animal movements from their members to circuses even if this means animals may be euthanized.

If one looks at any of the genuine research undertaken into the welfare of circus animals (such as the work by Kiley-Worthington and the 2007 report from DEFRA) there seems to be a consensus that animals kept in circus environments are no more compromised in their welfare than other animal keeping enterprises. Indeed, as alluded above, the current plans to ban wild animals in circuses in Britain is based on rather dubious "ethical grounds" rather actual animal welfare considerations.

I have always been in favour of sensible, objective and scientifically based animal welfare regulations. I, along with many others, welcomed the introduction of the 1981 Zoo Licensing Act.  I further welcomed the introduction of the inspection and licensing regarding the welfare of circus animals introduced in December 2012. Like the Zoo Licensing Act (under the evolving guide of the Secretary Of State Standards of Modern Zoo Practice), I can see no reason why circus animal welfare regulations cannot also advance over time and reflect contemporary standards in animal husbandry and welfare.

This may, of course, mean that in the future it may become prohibitively expensive and impractical to display some species within the circus environment. However, this would still allow various species of animal to be displayed within proscribed welfare guidelines.

It goes without saying, that I would openly condemn bad animal welfare practice in the circus environment or any other animal keeping enterprise. Nonetheless, my current feelings are that regulation of animals within a circus is the most sensible way forward and that outright banning is unfair, unnecessary and Draconian. More importantly, I believe this ban is being driven by the political ideology of animal-rights and not due to considerations relating to actual animal welfare.