Debate over the evolution of society, tradition and the treatment of captive animals could decide the outcome of a proposed city ordinance banning wild and exotic animal acts in Missoula.
Advocates and opponents, including members of the Western Montana Shrine Club, stated their case before the City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee on Wednesday.
The committee voted unanimously to send the proposed ban to the full council for a vote in August.
“You refer to the circus as a tradition, and it is a tradition, but that doesn’t mean that every tradition needs to go on,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “Sometimes society’s values change. There are some traditions that we don’t do anymore.”
Stacey Gordon, an expert in animal law and director of the law library at the University of Montana, has been drafting the proposed ordinance for the past year, balancing it off similar laws passed in other U.S. cities.
As drafted, the measure would not impact rodeos, livestock or other educational displays, such as Raptors of the Rockies.
But it would ban elephant acts at the Western Montana Shrine Circus, and acts put on by Great Cats of the World, part of the Great Rockies Sports Show.
“We want to make it extra clear this ordinance does not touch the rodeo,” said Gordon. “It covers circus animals, and other wild and exotic animal exhibits.”
Others spoke in favor of the ordinance, including Brianne Ender, who said her son won’t see the circus so long as it includes exotic animal performances. Blake Nicolazzo also supported the proposal.
“I’m excited about going in this direction with this ordinance,” she said. “It shows we’re forward thinking and compassionate. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Members of the Western Montana Shrine Circus disagreed. They believe the ordinance would all but end their circus, which has been held in Missoula for the past 65 years.
Wearing their fez, Shriners called the proposal a back-door move cloaked in the guise of public safety. They referred to supporters of the ordinance as members of PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Advocates said repeatedly they weren’t affiliated with the animal-rights group.
“We don’t believe there’s a large risk to public health and safety,” said circus chairman Dean Gillmore. “That’s not the reason for this ordinance, except as presented in this PETA format, and they believe it’s a cruelty-to-animals issue, not a public health and safety issue.”
Gillmore said the circus solicits the support of local business owners each year to provide 1,500 free tickets to children across the region. He said the event draws 20,000 people as a fundraiser for Shriners Hospitals for Children.
He said the animals are well cared for.
“These animals are loved and cherished by the owners,” Gillmore said. “They’re not only their pets, they’re their livelihood. They (animals) get vacations every year, just like their owner. They’re born in captivity 99 percent of the time, and they live longer than their counterparts in the wild.”
Barry Hartman, secretary of the Western Montana Shrine Club, said trying to ban elephants from the circus was akin to banning Orca whales from Sea World.
He said the circus would likely end if the proposal passed.
“We think this is part of what makes Missoula one of the best places to be,” he said of the circus. “If you want to shut down our circus, God bless you, but that’s what this will do.”
Members of the City Council listened to the arguments before sharing their views on the proposed ordinance and hinting, in part, where they stood on the issue.
While none wanted to see the circus end, nearly all of those who spoke on the matter voiced a dislike for keeping wild animals captive and forcing them to perform.
“It would be a tragedy to lose the circus because of something like this,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossburg. “That said, I can’t in good conscience bring my daughter to the circus because of the performances of the wild animals.”
Under public pressure, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey said it would phase out elephants from its circus by 2018 after showcasing them for the past 145 years.
The Shrine Circus hasn’t gone so far, though the Los Angeles Shrine pledged to stop using elephants after the city council there banned the use of bull hooks on a 14-0 vote.
Circus supporters’ use of the term “pet” to describe a captive elephant or tiger also concerned some council members.
“I have concerns about the treatment of animals in the circus, concerns about animals being on trains or in carts while caged," said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. "It’s not how I treat my pets, and when I hear them compared to pets, I take pause.”
The ordinance would also ban wild and exotic animal displays that have been part of the Western Montana Fair in recent years, including the 2013 exhibit of a fox, chinchilla and alligator.
The exhibit generated complaints from fairgoers concerned about the animals’ restriction to tiny cages, some no larger than the animal itself. The exhibitor was asked to leave the fair, though he hadn’t broken any local laws – something the City Council will consider changing.
“I’m a hunter, I grew up keeping livestock, I was in 4-H and I still keep chickens,” said Marler. “But keeping wild animals, even if they’re bred in captivity to do performances, is something I don’t think people support anymore.”
The City Council will hold a hearing Aug. 10 before voting on the measure.