India is considering a ban on the use of all animals used in circuses after activists said Wednesday they discovered elephants and horses shackled for long periods, dogs housed in tiny cages and drunk trainers.
The Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), a statutory advisory body, said it has recommended the ban after a nine-month investigation by animal rights activists into conditions at 16 of the nation's circuses.
The recommendation to India's environment ministry follows a ban by many Western circuses of the practice amid public concern over the treatment of animals trained to perform tricks.
"Everyone enjoys the circus, but nobody sees what's happening behind the show, the horrible treatment to the animals or how they are kept," AWBI secretary S. Umarani told AFP.
"We need to bring in the right legislation to stop this cruelty. That's why the board has recommended a total ban. Now the ministry will consider and take a call," Umarani said.
Many wild and endangered animals are already banned from Indian circus acts including bears, monkeys, tigers, panthers and lions, but the latest proposal is for a ban on all animals. Elephants are still widely used in circuses despite a ban issued in 2009, activists said.
Rights groups PETA and Animal Rahat (meaning Animal Relief) said their investigation handed to AWBI found evidence that animals have been hit with sticks with iron hooks and constantly shackled and caged, while some trainers were found drunk.
Many animals were forced to perform acts despite being partially blind and injured, PETA said.
"Tricks are not natural to animals. They are beaten and punished for it...that's why we are calling for human-only performances in circuses," said Manilal Valliyate, director of veterinary affairs at PETA India, said in New Delhi.
Many of the circuses lack the money and facilities to properly care for the animals, including adequate veterinary care, PETA said.
Ministry of Environment and Forests official Surjit Singh said a final decision on the ban could take "a long time" as it was still waiting for details on AWBI's recommendations.
The circus tradition in India dates back to the late nineteenth century, but in recent times its popularity has dwindled. Now only a little more than 20 government-registered circuses perform across the country.
Some circus owners have been quoted in local media as saying the recommendation, if accepted, would spell the death knell for their businesses.
A handful of countries have similar bans, while Britain's parliament introduced a draft bill in April which would ban travelling circuses from using wild animals.