Today few circus goers find it palatable to watch tigers jump through hoops or elephants dance. A ban on circus animals looked inevitable... then the experts delivered their verdict.
Once the spectacle of seeing a lion, tiger or elephant performing under the Big Top was commonplace. Now, only one British circus keeps big cats, and fewer than 50 wild animals perform in four UK-owned circuses including seven tigers, eight camels, five lions, several zebras and a retired elephant called Anne who tours but no longer performs.
Many animal welfare campaigners including the RSPCA want these wild animals banned from British circuses, claiming it's undignified and wrong.
"It's really inappropriate in this day and age to have wild animals shunted up and down the country from venue to venue, in and out of their beast wagons, in and out of the circus ring performing training," says Will Travers from the Born Free Foundation. "It just seems that belongs to a bygone era and it should be stopped."
The Great British Circus is the biggest animal circus in the UK - and the only one still using lions and tigers. The owner insists his performers are well looked after and enjoy a good life.
"Circus animals have a very mentally and physically stimulating day, rather like police dogs and police horses who at the end of the day go back to their stable or kennel because that's all they require - they've had a very busy day," says lion trainer Martin Lacey. "They don't need the vast space a zoo animal requires."
Until recently it seems the government agreed with the RSPCA and other welfare campaigners. Last year they introduced the Animal Welfare Act (2006) which was expected to pave the way for a ban on wild animals performing in circuses. During a debate in parliament the Labour minister Lord Rooker said: "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."
Committed yes, but the government also added a crucial caveat. A ban would only be forthcoming if there was scientific evidence that could prove animals performing in circuses were suffering.
But the science has proved otherwise. A group of experts, including six eminent vets, has concluded there's no proof that circus animals suffer more than other wild animals kept in captivity.
But hard scientific fact is thin on the ground. Much of the evidence given to the experts by animal welfare campaigners was irrelevant or inappropriate. One of the panel, who asks to remain anonymous, says the results are a "surprise" as he thought the welfare lobby would "slaughter" the circus lobby.
But that hasn't happened, and the government is not pleased with the outcome. Circus owners are claiming a victory. But animal welfare campaigners are still determined to bring about a ban.
"We was robbed on this issue and not only us, but I think the public at large, parliamentarians and those in the animal protection movement," says Mr Travers of Born Free.
In a Mori poll in 2005, 80% of the population said it was against wild animals performing in circuses.
Black and white
Is the government prepared to try to put another act through parliament to try to ban fewer than 50 animals?
The Labour MP Ian Cawsey has just been appointed by Gordon Brown to look at animal welfare issues. He says the government has sent out letters to MPs, asking for their views.
"We have the Zoo Licensing Act. It ensures that wild and exotic animals in zoos are licensed, and their welfare conditions are checked and maintained all the time. That should apply to circuses as well because the animals don't choose where they end up. What we need to do is have a law that applies to the animals and not the nature of the organisation."
If circuses are subject to the restrictions of the Zoo Licensing Act, many will go out of business.
At the Great British Circus, they are training their animals for next season. A two-year-old zebra called Toto will eventually work with the horses and camels in the circus, but with so many people against wild animal performances, his future is by no means certain.
The Politics Show is broadcast on Sunday, 9 December at 1200 GMT on BBC One.