By Danny Penman
Last updated at 1:30 AM on 09th June 2008
The two boisterous young tiger cubs leapt onto my lap and started pawing playfully at my face.
Although they were only eight weeks old, I could already feel the power behind their little swipes as their sharp claws raked across my skin.
The cubs soon shifted their attention to my shoelaces and began to play-stalk them, their little bottoms swaying slowly from side to side.
Like all youngsters, the tiger cubs wanted to do nothing more than rush around and play.
But as soon as the cubs strayed from the circus ring, where they were being rented out for £100 a time to pose with the public, a sinister look came over their trainer’s face, and she would grab them roughly by the scruff of the neck.
The poor cubs could do nothing against the trainer’s strength. The best they could manage was to growl weakly in a pathetic attempt to sound fierce.
I was handed a bottle of milk and told to feed the tiger cubs as you would a babe in arms. This, I was told, always makes for a good photo. And indeed it does.
But behind such images lies the story of one of Nature’s most awesome species reduced to a demeaning party trick, and of the terrible Government betrayal that has made it possible.
For after 20 minutes of ‘freedom’, the two cubs, Meena and Dehra, were dragged back to their pen on the back of a truck as their mother, a bored-looking Bengal tiger, looked on helplessly. They had been snatched away from her when they were just a few weeks old.
The plight of Meena and Dehra would be tragic enough were it in a Third World zoo, but I discovered these tigers at the Great British Circus in East London.
Two years ago, the prospect of such scenes still being acted out today would have been unthinkable. For back then, the Government unequivocally promised to ban most non-domestic animals from circuses for good – including tigers.
Jeff Rooker, Minister for Sustainable Food, Farming and Animal Health, made great play of the Government’s determination to end what is widely regarded as a cruel and unnecessary spectacle.
He told the House of Lords’ Grand Committee: ‘The Government have made it clear that we are committed to banning certain non-domesticated species currently used in circuses, with a regulation coming into force in 2008. That commitment is crystal clear.’
The commitment was so emphatic animal welfare groups hoped that the Government might go even further and ban all animals from circuses, not just exotic ones such as lions, tigers and elephants, but horses and dogs as well.
I was briefed ‘off the record’ that the Government’s determination was unwavering.
When I tried to question Lord Rooker about the Government’s apparent volte face, I was told the Minister was too busy to answer such inquiries.
Understandably, this broken promise has enraged welfare campaigners.
‘The Government has abandoned wild animals to a life of boredom, cruelty and depression,’ says Tim Phillips, of Animal Defenders International. ‘MPs of all parties are furious about this.
The Government should listen, carry out its promise, and ban all animals from circuses.’
Sadly, Meena and Dehra are by no means the only victims of the Government’s U-turn. There are currently around 200 animals in Britain’s 30 or so remaining circuses.
And while all but ten circuses have dropped live animal acts because of growing public unease, there are at least nine tigers, five lions, ten camels, five zebras, four llamas and an elephant still being made to perform.
Britain’s last remaining performing bear died last year, after a lifetime of imprisonment.
Such circuses have become a byword for cruelty – and with good reason.
A major undercover investigation by Animal Defenders discovered that animals in some circuses were battered with iron poles to make them perform.
In one circus, a lion was filmed being hit in the face with an iron bar. In another, a baby chimpanzee was thrashed with a riding crop.
MPs sitting on the All Party Parliamentary Animal Welfare Group discovered equally disturbing scenes.
Their report revealed that animals are often driven insane by life in the circus. They frantically chew the bars of their cages for hours on end. Others endlessly pace backwards and forwards between the walls of their cells.
Circus lions and tigers can spend up to 90 per cent of their time in cages, and in extreme cases, big cats may have less than 35 cubic feet of space each – equivalent to the inside of a small car. It’s about as far as its possible to get from their natural life roaming free across Africa and Asia.
Circuses, of course, want you to see only the glitz and glamour of the Big Top. But when I went undercover to visit two of them that still use wild animals, I found conditions were still deeply unsettling.
At the Great British Circus in East London, Bengal tigers were forced into the ring using whips and wooden poles. They were then compelled to jump on and off stools to the sound of Ravel’s Bolero. They did this a dozen times before being sent back to their tiny cages.
The poor creatures looked bored and depressed throughout the whole performance.
After the show, I slipped behind the Big Top to discover that the lions and tigers were imprisoned in tiny cages – some less than five feet square. Some of these cages housed two tigers.
The space was so cramped that both animals couldn’t even stretch out their legs at the same time. I watched one Bengal tiger pace back and forth across its minuscule cage.
In the space of one minute, it paced across its cage 32 times. When I returned 15 minutes later, the tiger was still pacing back and forth. Such behaviour is a symptom of mental disturbance.
At Bobby Roberts’ Circus, performing in Saffron Walden, I saw an equally disturbing sight. Anne, a 56-year-old arthritic elephant, was the showpiece of the circus.
On the day I visited, Anne was shackled to the ground inside a tent behind the Big Top. She was swaying slowly from side to side as if she was unhinged. It was impossible to tell whether her behaviour was the result of madness or the pain of arthritis.
Certainly, when she later appeared in the circus ring, the elderly elephant seemed lonely and depressed. It would be wrong to say that the circuses visited by the Daily Mail were being deliberately cruel to their animals.
In fact, they are probably doing their best to treat them well – but there can be no doubt that the creatures are suffering as a result of their way of life. Yet both Bobby Roberts and the Great British Circus deny that their animals suffer in any way at all.
A spokesman for Bobby Roberts said: ‘Anne is a member of our family and we have grown up together. Claims that she is in “constant pain” are unfounded and completely untrue. There’s no veterinary evidence to show that she is suffering.’
Jeff Link, a spokesman for the Great British Circus, said: ‘Where’s the evidence that circuses are cruel? The circus proprietor Martin Lacey has 40 years experience with animals. They are not stressed at all. They love him.
‘If Martin was being cruel then he would have been prosecuted. In any case, a cage is no different to a bed.’
It appears the Government agrees. It wriggled out of its promise to ban performing wild animals using a classic Whitehall trick – it set up a committee to analyse the issue.
But given that three members of the committee were nominated by the circus industry, and that only evidence that had been previously agreed upon by all members could be discussed, this gave the circus lobby an effective veto over the committee.
So, surprise, surprise, the committee refused to consider undercover surveillance video showing cruel and routine animal abuse in British circuses.
Nor would it consider evidence that animals are driven mad by confinement and a dossier of other scientific data. In fact, virtually all of the evidence that put circuses in a bad light was excluded.
Animal experts have been left perplexed and dismayed. Professor Stephen Harris, a world-renowned wildlife authority from Bristol University, submitted evidence to the committee – only to see much of it struck out on a technicality.
‘The whole review process was dishonest and a waste of time,’ he says. ‘It’s cruel to train animals to do tricks, keep them in tiny cages, truck them around the country and prevent them from expressing their natural behaviour. It’s farcical to claim otherwise and yet the Government demanded that we prove it’s cruel.
‘But how do you prove that something is cruel? It’s almost impossible. It’s bureaucracy gone mad. Imagine if we’d tried to ban cock-fighting and bull-baiting with that attitude. It would probably have been impossible.’
But circuses have clearly been heartened by the Government’s change of policy. Some have already begun breeding programmes for lions, tigers, camels, reindeer and several other species. Baby animals are huge crowd pleasers and are certain to breathe new life into the flagging circus industry.
But an even darker spectre is looming. African nations are keen to begin exporting wild animals. South Africa, for one, is known to be looking to export elephants to British and European circuses from its Kruger National Park.
Such fears have spurred MPs into action. An Early Day Motion before Parliament – and so far signed by 166 MPs of all parties – calls for the Government ‘to maintain its commitment to ban the use of wild species in travelling circuses’.
If the Government refuses to take note and enact a complete ban, it cannot be long before baby lions and elephants, caught in the wild, once again begin appearing in British circuses.
As Professor Harris concludes, that would be scandalous. ‘Every intelligent person knows that circuses are cruel,’ he says. ‘They should not be allowed to use wild animals.’