The date was January 9, 1768. The setting was a field near Waterloo. The man in charge was Philip Astley.
On that winter’s morning 250 years ago, the Sergeant Major in the Fifteenth Light Dragoon Regiment rode into the makeshift amphitheatre, performing tricks on the back of his horse.
By the end of the show, the modern circus had been borne and it wasn’t long before Astley’s troupe of acrobats was swelled with dancing dogs, bears and tigers. It proved a winning formula and the travelling circus became a part of British culture.
By the time a group of animal protection charities launched a campaign to ban the use of wild animals in circuses six years ago, most had already closed and public appetite for performing elephants had waned.
However, the Captive Animals Protection Society and others were determined to secure an outright ban, forcing the few remaining troupes using snakes, tigers and camels to change their ways.
Yesterday the Government promised it would pass new legislation at the earliest opportunity, but as ever the devil was in the detail.
A Bill is unlikely to be put before Parliament for at least two years and while in the meantime circuses will be subject to a new licensing scheme, many campaigners fear a ban will never see the light of day. Certainly for those at the CAPS, the champagne remains on ice.
“We are obviously pleased that the Government now seems committed to a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, but until we have had a chance to go through the detailed proposals from Defra, understood fully the plans for implementation and seen a firm and unmoving timescale for the introduction of the ban, we will be reserving judgement,” says Liz Tyson, director of the charity.
“At the moment, 2015 has been mooted, but it is still a very long way off and means at least two more years of this unpopular practice and suffering from animals under the big top. We see no reason for this extended delay and are concerned that the interim licensing system is an unnecessary distraction. No animal, wild or domestic, belongs in a circus, it really is as simple as that.”
A ban on animals in circuses has won overwhelming public support, but for the moment at least the handful of troupes still using performing animals are unlikely to be packing up the big top any time soon.
“We congratulate the Government on finally seeing sense and not being swayed by the fanatical protest groups and wealthy do-gooder organisations, more interested in donations than genuine animal welfare,” says Dr David Barnaby, chairman of the Circus Zoological Society. “In Britain, circuses with animals have been living under threat for some years now, not able to invest or plan for the future.
“We are grateful to Lord Henley, the Minister with responsibility for the welfare of companion and wild animals, and his colleagues at Defra for taking the trouble to actually look at circuses and hold their opinions throughout a long period of zero sympathy and understanding for animal circuses.
“This decision brings Britain into line with the other major European countries that have decided not to ban wild animals in circuses including France, Italy, Spain, Holland and Germany as well as Scotland and Ireland and it is to be welcomed.”