Wild animals will be banned in Irish circuses from January in a move that will delight long-standing campaigners and bring a close to the age of the traditional big top.
On Thursday, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed signed regulations saying the use of wild animals for entertainment “can no longer be permitted”.
While elephants, tigers, lions and zebras has been on the wane in recent times, the Minister’s decision will nevertheless be welcomed by numerous activist groups who have spent years attempting to bring an end to the practice.
“This is the general view of the public at large and a position I am happy to endorse,” Mr Creed said.
“This is a progressive move, reflective of our commitment to animal welfare.”
While the move will be welcomed, Ireland is only the 20th EU member state, and the 42nd country globally, to legislate against the use of wild animals in such a way.
In its Ring of Cruelty reports, conducted in 2006 and 2012, the UK-based charity Captive Animals Protection Society (Caps) said the number of travelling circuses showcasing wild animals in Ireland had reduced from seven to four.
The numbers of animals had also declined, falling from 33 to 16 in the same period, while the importation of animals had similarly fallen.
“Touring season, animals living restricted lives, temporary and inadequate accommodation, constant transportation and unnatural social groups remain serious concerns,” it said in its last report.
As noted by Mr Creed, local authorities in Ireland had increasingly refused to authorise the use of public land for circuses in which wild animals would be used, signalling a broader shift in cultural acceptance.
Dr Andrew Kelly, chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA), another body which had lobbied for the cessation of animal performances, said the Minister’s decision followed years of campaigning. Last year, its Big Stop appeal attracted 27,000 public signatures.
"It's our view that circuses can never provide a safe environment for animals," he told The Irish Times. "We aren't talking about zoos here – we are talking about animals being coerced into doing tricks that they wouldn't do in the wild."
The ISPCA had previously warned the Government that Ireland could become a “dumping ground” for animal circuses that had been legislated out of other European countries.
Dr Kelly echoed the Minister’s assertion that January’s ban would in fact increase the numbers of visitors to circuses, whose image had often been damaged by a legacy of lion tamers and other animal entertainment.
The new Circuses (Prohibition on Use of Wild Animals) Regulations 2017 fall under the Animal Health & Welfare Act 2013, a major piece of legislation that replaced animal welfare laws drawn up over the last 100 years.
Mr Creed’s decision renders redundant the Prohibition of Wild Animals in Circuses Bill 2017 which was introduced to the Dáil by Solidarity TD Paul Murphy earlier this year, and which would have had the same effect.
Reacting to the announcement, Animal Rights Action Network spokesman John Carmody said Ireland “has finally taken a meaningful and real step to stop the suffering of wild animals forced to travel and perform in Irish circuses”.
In March last year, gardaí had to intervene during a protest at a circus in Tallaght in which seven people were arrested for public order offences and others were taken to hospital.