Stop Circus Suffering

Circus Report Dissected

Defra’s long-awaited report of their Circus Working Group (CWG) was published in November, and we are right back where we started 18 months ago.

Elephant abuse

ADI Chief Executive condemns Circus Working Group as an utter waste of time… read the blog.

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Defra’s Circus Working Group Report – something of a farce

Defra’s long-awaited report of their Circus Working Group (CWG) was published in November, and we are right back where we started 18 months ago, when Defra minister Ben Bradshaw gave an undertaking in the House of Commons in March 2006 that a ban on the use of non-domesticated species would be brought in after the passage of the Animal Welfare Act.

Amendments to the Animal Welfare Bill, which would have put a ban on the face of the legislation, were withdrawn on the basis of a stated Government commitment.

As a result of this statement, Defra convened the Circus Working Group, comprised of industry and animal welfare groups, to gather evidence on the suffering of animals in circuses. Each group nominated three experts to sit on an Academic Panel, which would review evidence put before it by the animal welfare and industry groups. This evidence would inform the Government’s decision-making.

ADI participated, but warned that Defra’s insistence on only looking at published scientific studies would result in too little evidence. This has not been an area of great academic interest and therefore the studies have not been commissioned. We therefore submitted a huge amount of evidence – published studies of the effects of captivity and transportation on animals in other industries – in order to provide material that can be read across to the circus situation. All such material was excluded from the Academic Panel’s deliberations, on the basis that the “particularity” of the circus environment is such that it cannot be compared with zoos, animals in transport for other industries, etc. There is also a great deal of empirical evidence including observational studies and video, that indicates that animals in cages on the backs of lorries, constantly travelling in deprived and unstable environments, compromises animal welfare. All of this was also excluded.

As a result, the CWG’s report is not only inconclusive, but it is also contradictory and admits that huge amounts of evidence were simply not looked at.

In his recent report, the CWG Chairman, lawyer Mike Radford, advises that the Government cannot look to science to steer its decision because “science, on this occasion, provides no relevant guidance as to the appropriate principle to be adopted”. He warns that the conclusions of the report should not be regarded as establishing conclusively one way or another whether the welfare of non-domesticated circus animals is either compromised or of an acceptable standard.

Although Radford has stated “the status quo is not an option”, he also contends that any attempt to ban the use of certain species in circuses under secondary legislation may be subject to legal challenge, as he feels that the Government is obliged to follow the scientific evidence.

However, on the other hand, the Government is also obliged to stick to its undertakings, given in Parliament.

See Jan’s blog for the key points

Download ADI’s detailed Analysis and Critique of the Government’s Circus Working Group report as a PDF

ADI Detailed Analysis and Critique of the Government’s Circus Working Group report:

ADI: Initial response to ‘Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses’, the report of the Chairman of the Circus Working Group published by Defra, 20 November 2007.

The Circus Working Group (CWG) report is arranged in the following sections: 1. Executive Summary 2. Background 3. The Significance of the Issue 4. Consideration of the Evidence 5. The report of the Academic Panel 6. The implications of the Academic Panel’s Report 7. The Need for Reform 8. The Options

Unless otherwise stated, the paragraph numbers referred to below relate to those used in the CWG report:

The Academic Panel of the CWG has stated: “there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments”(5.1.3).

However, these are the deliberations of a Panel of polarised experts, which excluded large amounts of evidence, and did not meet, relying upon email for its deliberations (4.5.1).

Samantha Lindley, veterinary behaviourist and member of the Academic Panel has issued the following statement, which was omitted from the final report:

“It must be remembered that absence of evidence of suffering is not evidence of absence of suffering. It was inevitable that the academic sub group’s report would be inconclusive: there was never going to be sufficient rigorous scientific evidence to prove a case either way.”

Importantly, the Chairman of the Circus Working Group (and author of the report), lawyer Mike Radford, concludes in his Executive Summary that there is not enough scientific evidence to establish conclusively one way or another – the case was not made:

“The overriding conclusion of this exercise is that our present state of knowledge about the welfare of non-domesticated animals used in circuses is such that we cannot look to scientific evidence for a steer in the development of policy; it is, ultimately, an entirely political decision… science, on this occasion, provides no relevant guidance as to the appropriate principle to be adopted”.

Radford’s other important conclusion is that “The status quo is not a tenable option”.

The issue of the type of evidence reviewed by the Panel is crucial: On 23 May 2006 minister Lord Rooker stated: “..there is likely to be a lack of scientific evidence related to animals used specifically in entertainment, and we would be willing to consider sound scientific results obtained on species kept in different conditions”(4.1.1).

This is a sound and sensible approach as animals in other captive and transportation circumstances will have certain characteristics in common, irrespective of the location of the cages, the presence of the public, mode of transport and closeness of the quarters; local conditions will have similar effects on physiology, whether the setting is a zoo or a circus.

However, the Academic Panel dismissed this approach: “The opinion of the Academic Panel is that the environment in circuses is too different from those in farms or zoos for helpful comparisons of research findings to be made”(5.1.1) and” “the particularity of the circus environment was such that research findings relating to animals kept in other contexts was not helpful” ” (6.2.2).

By disregarding all data and references not relating directly to travelling circuses, the parameters of the research were narrowed too much for there to be a sufficient body of data to inform the panel and enable scientific, pertinent decisions to be made.

A flawed modus operandi

The Circus Working Group (CWG) was convened following Defra minister Ben Bradshaw’s statement to the House of Commons in March 2006 that he intended using “clause 10 of the Animal Welfare Bill [now section 12 of the Act] {/i to ban the use in travelling circuses of certain non-domesticated species whose welfare need cannot be satisfactorily met in that environment”(2.1.1.). This was during the Committee Stage of the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

The CWG was comprised of animal welfare and industry groups; each group submitted evidence on the welfare of animals in travelling circuses, and nominated three experts to sit on an academic panel, to review the evidence.

The modus operandi has been flawed from the outset. Early in the process, ADI warned that if the data source were only published scientific studies of animal circuses, there would not be sufficient to inform a decision. Animals in travelling circuses is not a subject that has generated much academic interest – very little has been commissioned and so the studies are not there.

The Minister of State, Lord Rooker, had announced previously “there is likely to be a lack of scientific evidence related to animals used specifically in entertainment, and we would be willing to consider sound scientific results obtained on species kept in different conditions”(4.1.1).

There is, however, a great deal of empirical evidence; observational studies, notes and video recordings (24-hour video, not “snapshots”). This evidence has consistently indicated poor facilities in travelling circuses; deprived environments; lack of socialisation or inappropriate proximity to other species; low standards of welfare. All of this evidence was excluded.

As a result we have an inconclusive report, full of assumptions and contradictions, based upon an extremely small amount of evidence because both scientific studies on animals in similar captive situations and transportation, and all empirical evidence, were excluded.

It had been anticipated that, at the very least, species of concern would have been flagged up but this has not occurred. In the following statement, the key point of interest – arthritis and foot problems in elephants – is not pursued. Instead, a broad supposition is made, based upon limited evidence:

“Although some health problems (for example, arthritis and foot problems in elephants) are reported, in general, the overall health of animals, based on some of the papers cited, in travelling circuses is reported as being good” (5.6.1).

The Panel relied upon email for its deliberations. It must have been clear early on that this process was heading towards a stalemate, yet the modus operandi was not changed. For example, the focus could have perhaps been changed to an examination of the needs of one or two species and whether these could be met in the traveling circus.

The most damning problem of the modus operandi is the requirement for scientific data specific to the industry. To employ this widely would mean any industry too small to be the subject of scientific review could never be assessed in this way. The UK circus industry, with just 47 wild animals at present, of course falls into this category.

The larger animal-using industries such as experimentation or farming where there is much data available are generally covered by other legislation. ADI had been assured that one of the aims of the Animal Welfare Act was to cover those commercial uses of animals that had fallen through loopholes elsewhere. Yet a method of assessment has been employed that immediately puts such small business sectors outside of the reach of the law. The implications for other areas, such as pet primate and pet fairs, are worrying.

However, at the launch of the CWG report, Defra announced that this particular method is unlikely to be used elsewhere. So why use it for animal circuses? The impracticality of this approach has become evident.

It seems best to move past the Academic Panel’s report and accept it as a failed experiment, which as, the Chairman concludes, was “inconclusive”.


The remit of the Circus Working Group was restricted to welfare in transportation; accommodation; behavioural needs; time travelling and in temporary accommodation. (2.2.2).

The Chairman notes that issues related to training and performance were expressly omitted from the CWG’s terms of reference because these matters are currently being considered by a separate working group, and remarks: “One can only speculate whether the substance of this report would have been materially different if the Working group had looked at the full picture”(2.2.4).

The report later goes on to describe how training and performing “nevertheless, accounts for a significant part of the time budgets of animals”(5.3.2), therefore the Panel’s conclusions, by their own admission, are based only on part of the time budget of circus animals.

ADI previously made enquiries about the composition and deliberations of the Performing Animals Working Group and we were advised that this group had been taken outside of Defra and is comprised of industry representatives only.


Radford discusses the strength of public and parliamentary opinion on this issue (3.3). There have been several key parliamentary motions, surveys, and opinion polls:


EDM 787 Animal Defenders and Circus Animals 12.02.1998.
Joan Humble. 214 Signatures.

EDM 64 Circus Animals 01.12.1998
Norman Baker. 192 Signatures.

EDM 767 Cruelty to Animals 22.02.2000
Kerry Pollard. 61 signatures.

EDM 714 Cruelty to Animals 14.06.1999
Kerry Pollard. 76 Signatures

EDM 468 Circus Animal Welfare 29.06.2005
Norman Baker. 87 Signatures.

EDM 1626 Animal Welfare 13.12.2006
Mike Hancock. 144 Signatures.

Local Authorities:


  • 39% had banned all animal acts
  • 17% had banned just wild animal acts
  • 22.5% continued to allow animal circuses
  • 21.5% said they never received requests from circuses with animals

Public: Mori Poll, 2005:

  • 65% say ban all animal circus acts.
  • 80% say ban all wild animal circus acts.
  • Only 7% strongly opposed the calls for bans.
  • More than twice as many people now visit animal-free circuses as opposed to those with animals.
  • In the previous 5 years, attendance at animal-free circuses rose from 6% to 16%.
  • Animal circuses remain slumped at 7% attendance.

The most popular forms of animal entertainment attended are:

  • aquariums (50% of respondents)
  • zoos (39%)
  • safari parks (22%).

NOP Poll, 2004:

  • 63% of the public wanted to see all animal acts banned from circuses
  • only 8% disagreed.


Here, Radford discusses data on the species of animals featured in circuses in Europe. In order to understand the wider political dimension, we believe it is pertinent to include the bans on animals in travelling circuses across Europe, as well as the rest of the world:

Nationwide bans on all wild animals in circuses include Austria, Singapore, Israel and Costa Rica.

A growing numbers of European countries for example Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic have, or are banning, selected species. Other European countries with a number of regional city bans include Greece, Italy and the UK.

In Latin America the State of Rio de Janeiro, and the cities of Buenos Aires(Argentina), Porto Alegre (Brazil), Sucre, El Alto, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Tiquipalla (Bolivia) have already banned the use of all animals in circuses – both wild and domesticated – La Paz, Bolivia has a ban on wild animals only. A legislative proposal is before the Peruvian Senate for a similar ban.

Other major cities in the world have bans, for example, Vancouver (Canada),Parramatta (Australia, part of Sydney), Tel-Aviv (Israel), Wellington (New Zealand).


Perhaps it is inevitable that the composition of the academic panel, two groups of polarised experts, would end in stalemate.

At 5.1.3, the Academic Panel agrees: “There appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments”. However, it is admitted at 5.1.4 and 5.1.5, that very little evidence had been reviewed, having cherry- picked that which was deemed acceptable. In view of the evidence not looked at, this statement appears to be something of a leap of faith.

ADI contests that there is a wealth of empirical evidence available that could have been used: observational studies, field officer notes and video recordings. This evidence was robust enough to secure three criminal convictions for animal cruelty in the UK.

The insistence on using only peer-reviewed scientific studies as evidence ensured that the majority of the available evidence on the use of animals in circuses was excluded.

The report states that “on evidence of particular instances of cruelty, while it is distressing, it is of course not sufficient to demonstrate that a particular environment necessarily causes animal suffering” (4.1.1).

We agree. However to also exclude scientific studies on the effects of captivity and transportation as well, seems an extraordinary decision.

Despite Defra’s concern that video recordings would only provide a ‘snapshot’ of husbandry, ADI believes that the Academic Panel would have benefited from verified, continuous recordings of 24 hour and longer periods.

Although Lord Rooker previously announced on 23 May 2006 that evidence would be taken from “people who have gained evidence and experience from direct observation”(4.1.1), this was excluded.

On the issue of an animal’s response to constant travelling, again the Panel appears to make assumptions that they admit are not backed by data (5.4.1 – 5.6.2).

At 5.6.2, the Panel commented: “there is little evidence that the health of circus animals is any better or worse than animals in other captive environments”. As far as ADI is aware, specific evidence on the health status of circus animals was not requested or submitted. We do not therefore understand the scientific basis for this comment. In any event, it is not good enough to resort to the ‘It’s just as bad elsewhere’ argument.

At 5.4.1, the Panel appears to delve into conjecture: “Circus animals are often transported in containers/vehicles that are also ‘home’; therefore the stress of a novel environment may be reduced. They infrequently appear to object to being loaded and unloaded compared to animals not used to being transported regularly, although systematic data on this have not yet been collected”. (Our emphasis).


In this section, Radford draws together the key points and an inconsistency in the Academic Panel’s report, and in doing so, highlights the weaknesses of the whole undertaking.

Although the academic panel assert that there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals in travelling circuses is any better or worse than other animals in other captive environments, the chair concludes (6.2.2):

“…the conclusions should not be regarded as establishing conclusively one way or the other whether the welfare of non-domesticated circus animals is either compromised or of an acceptable standard. The Panel did not undertake its own investigations, neither was any independent research commissioned as part of the present process…”

Legality of a ban on the use of certain non-domesticated species

More serious than the inconclusive scientific review by the Academic Panel, are the Chairman’s comments about the legality of a ban under secondary legislation.

At 6.4, Radford submits that if the Government were to introduce a ban under secondary legislation, this might be vulnerable to legal challenge, for these reasons:

(a)any secondary legislation must be based upon scientific evidence, as ministers consistently indicated this would be the case during the passage of the Animal Welfare Act – adoption of a different policy could be challenged; (b)the scope of the powers under the Act and the scientific definition of “animal welfare”; (c)in the absence of scientific evidence, proportionality.

See Section 8, below.


The Academic Panel’s view is that the general provisions of the Animal Welfare Act should be relied upon to protect the welfare of non-domesticated animals with travelling circuses, and considers that there is a need for further investigation and research (7.1.1).

However, Radford rightly points out that in view of the relatively small number of animals involved, it is doubted that the results of further research would be sufficiently meaningful and robust to better inform the debate (7.1.2).

Radford sums up thus: reliance upon the duty under the Animal Welfare Act to ensure that animals’ needs are met in accordance with good practice as a means to protect circus animals is unsatisfactory, for the following reasons:

  • The small number of animals involved makes it difficult to devise an objective test to define ‘good practice’ in the traveling circus; {*}a breach of such a code would not in itself constitute an offence; it would still need to be established that the responsible person had not taken the necessary steps to ensure the needs of an animal; {*} the circumstances (lawful use of an animal in a circus), which must be taken into account, might undermine the effectiveness of the duty to ensure welfare.


At 7.2.1, the Chair submits that the status quo is not a tenable option since:

  • expectations have been raised; {*}animal welfare in the circus industry is unregulated; {*}the present state of uncertainty needs to be resolved, and is possibly acting against the interests of the animals.

Radford quite rightly points to the high level of public and parliamentary concern on this issue, with large numbers of signatures attached to various EDMs calling for action.

Furthermore, during the passage of the Animal Welfare Act the Government undertook to ban the use of non-domesticated animals in travelling circuses.

See Section 3, earlier.

However at the end of an 18 month exercise, this leaves us precisely where we were when the process started – everyone knows that something needs to be done – but what?


At 8.2.1, Radford comments on the circus self-regulation: “Indeed, it is the perceived failure of self-regulation which has contributed to the demand for reform”.

In summary, Radford recommends that this issue should return to Parliament as primary legislation. Parliament would not be confined to taking account of the scientific evidence; it could give consideration to ethical issues, public opinion, and is able to attach greater weight to the interests of the animals involved, and where there is uncertainty, the animals can be given the benefit of the doubt (8.3.2).

However, the Chairman’s view that despite the widespread assumption that the Circus Working Group’s report would lead to a ban on the use of at least some types of non- domesticated animals, this cannot be achieved using secondary legislation, if correct, leaves us with few options.

Members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords withdrew amendments on the basis that the Government would be enacting secondary legislation. The Government promised a ban.

The submission that the Animal Welfare Act cannot proscribe certain practices where animal welfare may be compromised is completely counter to promises made during every stage of the passage of this Act. It has profound implications for other areas where the Government planned secondary legislation, such as pet fairs.

Is Defra seriously contemplating looking for ‘scientific evidence’ on welfare associated specifically with pet fairs?

ADI would like to submit the suggestion that we made at the Circus Working Group: A licensing system whereby circuses apply to the minister to use certain species in travelling performances, and such application to be supported by peer-reviewed, published scientific papers to demonstrate that the welfare of the animals requested in the application will not be compromised. These papers should be species-specific and also, if relevant, specific to age and gender.

Radford contends that if independent regulation were decided upon, the simplest course of action may be to amend the Zoo Licensing Act to include circuses – despite some legal issues that would need to be overcome (8.4.1).

Circuses would then be charged with responsibilities such as:

  • Providing each animal an environment “well adapted to meet the physical, psychological and social needs of the species to which it belongs; and
  • Provide a high standard of animal husbandry with preventative and curative veterinary treatment and nutrition.
  • Maintain up-to-date records of animals (8.4.4)

It would appear that although the Academic Panel asserts that the circumstances of animals in zoos is too different from the “particularity” of circuses for papers on zoo animal welfare to be considered relevant, the Chairman feels that where licensing is concerned “Much of the advice contained in the Zoos Forum Handbook relating to the ethical review process and, especially, animal welfare and its assessment would appear to be directly relevant to circuses” (8.4.5).


Discussing the local authority bans on animal circuses using council-owned land, Radford submits that local authorities might need to reconsider whether such bans are still appropriate and lawful.

ADI was not aware that the Circus Working Group report would be discussing this issue. Many of these bans have been legitimately instituted under Local Government legislation, using provisions for responding to local public opinion, or concerns about traffic, local nuisance, or health and safety.

For example, Nottingham City Council formed a policy in response to two separate public opinion polls; Grimsby also used opinion polls to support a ban; Worcester City Council cited nuisances such as: prevention of building access, causing disruption; advance party of caravans pitched without permission; illegal fly posting; arrival of the circus prior to the booked period of time and without previous request or notification; problems with contacting someone ‘in authority’; site left in very untidy state, requiring park staff to spend considerable time carrying out reinstatement works etc, at a cost which had to be deducted from the deposit paid by the circus.

ADI 2004 survey of over 300 local authorities revealed that over 200 had banned all animals in circuses, and more than 70 of them had a partial ban.

Radford concludes:

“In a circular issued in 2002, the Government stated that it believes that all captive animals should enjoy the same minimum welfare standards, aimed at ensuring a quality of life as good as can reasonably be achieved in the type of regime in which they are held. They should be held in accommodation, which is suitable in every key respect; adequately fed and watered; provided with veterinary care as necessary; and not be subjected to unnecessary suffering. Wherever practicable, standards should go beyond that – for example, to provide a rich and stimulating environment” (8.6.1)

“The overriding conclusion of this exercise is that our present state of knowledge about the welfare of non-domesticated animals used in circuses is such that we cannot look to scientific evidence for a steer in the development of policy; it is, ultimately, an entirely political decision. Once the relevant policy is decided upon, its implementation is essentially a question of politics and law; science, on this occasion, provides no relevant guidance as to the appropriate principle to be adopted” (8.6.2).

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