Circus animals petition submitted
Almost 2,000 people have signed a petition calling for a ban on circus animals.
Green Party leader Steven Agnew has spearheaded a move to deny an entertainment licence to operations which use them. He submitted a petition at the Assembly.
One of Ireland's largest circus owners said health checks by vets were rigorous and vowed to contest such an "extreme" change in court.
Mr Agnew said: "The petition I present today calls for a change in the law to effectively ban the use of animals in circuses by denying them an entertainment licence.
"Let me clear: animals do not exist for our entertainment. We know what an animal needs to ensure its welfare."
He said they should enjoy a suitable environment, exhibit normal behaviour patterns and be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
Mr Agnew said Stormont had protected the "five freedoms" of animals through a code of practice and those should be met in all aspects of society.
"Even with the best of intentions, a travelling circus cannot meet the five freedoms of an animal, and, for that reason, I believe that circuses that use animal acts should be prohibited in our society.
"Animals should be afforded dignity and respect, and they are denied that in circuses where the five freedoms are not met."
A total of 1,775 people signed the petition.
Environment minister Mark H Durkan has consulted on the licensing regime.
Mr Agnew said a total of "1,775 people have spoken and made it very clear that they no longer wish our society to give legitimacy to circuses that perpetuate cruelty on animals".
One signatory said: "It's time to stop this cruelty. Animals deserve better."
David Duffy, who owns Duffy's Circus, said they were open to inspection at all times.
He said: "We have had numerous welfare checks in Belfast and most recently in Newtownards on Wednesday and they gave us a clean bill of health.
"I don't see that there is any reason for these extreme measures.
"It is something we would contest in court because it would hamper our ability to trade and we are not breaking any law."
The USPCA has said it is opposed to exhibitions or presentations of animals in circuses.
It said they were performing to a time-table acts which do not come naturally to them, as well as being exposed to ridicule and indignity.
Its website added: "Circus animals are kept most of the time, in close confinement, in abnormal social groups... And are continually being transported - all causes of distress."