Activists hail absence of lions and tigers from travelling shows for the first time as animal welfare victory.
The coalition government has promised to fulfil Labour's pledge to ban all performing wild animals, but no date has been set. Photograph: AFP
Circuses have been an enduring part of popular culture since Roman times, thrilling crowds with their acrobats, clowns and exotic animals (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/animals).
But as Britain's travelling circus (http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/circus) season gets under way, it has emerged that this year for the first time no circus will feature any performing big cats. For purists it is the end of the big top as they know it. Animal rights campaigners predict it marks the beginning of the end for the use of wild animals in the UK.
The last circus to feature performing big cats, the Great British Circus (GBC), shipped its tigers to an operator in Ireland ahead of new welfare regulations that came into force last month. Just two circuses have applied for licences to keep wild animals – featuring camels, zebras and reindeer.
It is a far cry from the Victorian era when scores of circuses with performing troupes of elephants, lions and tigers toured the country. Even as recently as the turn of the millennium some 20 circuses featured performing wild animals.
The previous government promised to outlaw their use and the coalition has said it will fulfil this pledge, although no parliamentary date for introducing the legislation has been set.
Jan Creamer, chief executive of Animal Defenders International, which campaigns against animals in circuses, said: "There has been enough evidence, enough consultations, all the experts agree – putting large cats and other exotic animals in tiny cages that fit on a truck, with no environmental enrichment, and then beating them to perform tricks to entertain people is unacceptable in modern society. The day of the animal circus is over."
Circuses with wild animals in continental Europe and the US continue to draw large crowds.
"There are good examples of trainers on the continent who look after their animals very well," said David Jamieson, editor of King Pole, a magazine for circus fans.
"They're doing very interesting displays. It's not the old, old style of a man with a whip and a chair. These are sensitive displays that show the animals' affection for humans and humans' affection for animals."
GBC's tigers went to Courtney Brothers Circus in Ireland. The circus made headlines around the world last year after one of its five elephants escaped in Cork, running through a public car park and on to a road. A trainer was later crushed while attempting to break up a fight between two elephants.
Last year Bobby Roberts, owner of the Bobby Roberts Super Circus, became the first circus owner to be found guilty of offences under theAnimal Welfare (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/animal-welfare) Act (2006) for mistreating an elephant. A previous investigation of another circus showed tigers and lionesses being beaten.
The RSPCA, which has long campaigned for a change in the law to ban performing animals in circuses, claims that scientific research has shown that travelling circus life is likely to have a harmful effect on many species. A government consultation showed 94% of respondents supported a total ban.
There are between 25 and 30 circuses touring Britain of which only around five now feature any animals. The trend in recent years has been towards more artistic sorts of circus, such as the Cirque du Soleil, which places greater emphasis on acrobats. Its productions have filled the Royal Albert Hall for weeks at a time.
Circuses remove last of the big cats from UK's big tops