A handful of Missoula City Council members successfully beat back an ordinance seeking to ban wild and exotic animal acts within the city limits on Monday night, saying the proposal was flawed and failed to achieve its goals.
Led by council members Ed Childers, Patrick Weasel Head and John Wilkins, the proposed ordinance was sent back to the Public Health and Safety Committee, which unanimously passed the same legislation just two weeks ago.
The ordinance now faces two additional hearings and an uphill climb if it’s to become law in the months ahead.
“I would hope my colleagues sending it back are willing to actually work on the legislation itself,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley, who voted to keep the ordinance alive. “I hope you’re not sending it back to committee with the intent of doing nothing.”
Roughly 80 people weathered Monday night’s severe thunderstorm to attend the hearing. Nearly three dozen spoke about the proposed ordinance, with the vast majority supporting a ban on wild and exotic animal performances and displays within the city.
Still, the showing wasn’t enough to convince five council members, including Childers, Weasel Head, Wilkins and Adam Hertz, from voting to send it back to committee. Seven council members tried to keep the ordinance alive, but they failed to muster the eight votes needed to do so.
As written, Childers said the ordinance failed to protect wild and exotic animals from cruel and inhumane treatment, and it failed to protect the public.
He said he wasn’t a member of the Public Health and Safety Committee, and he didn’t have a chance to help craft the ordinance.
“It’s factual information about the ordinance,” said Childers. “It falls far short of what it’s trying to do. It has inconsistencies in it that don’t bode well for the ordinance.”
Saying they speak for the voiceless animals, dozens of citizens stood up at Monday night’s meeting in an effort to sway the council to act. It would have been the state’s first ban on wild and exotic animal shows.
Those who spoke in favor said that while they supported the Western Montana Shrine Club and its mission of supporting the Shriners Hospitals for Children, it was time for the organization to embrace the social changes that have taken place since the circus first came to Missoula 65 years ago.
“It may have had a time and a place, but not all traditions need to continue,” said one woman. “The fact is that wild animals are forced to perform unnatural acts. Wild animals are always wild, and that’s where they belong, not chained in a trailer and moved from city to city.”
One woman said she’s seen elephants at the local circus suffering from abscesses, and camels tied down by their neck. One woman said she’d witnessed a circus employee strike an elephant with a bull hook.
Another shared her experience working at a wild and exotic animal sanctuary. The price that performance animals pay on tour was too high, she said.
“Elephants and large cats are broken to do what they do,” added Lee Gordon. “Their training is necessarily unnatural and abusive. This well-crafted ordinance purposefully does not affect Montana traditions.”
As written, the ordinance would not have banned rodeos and educational venues, such as Raptors of the Rockies. It would not have impacted shows in which domestic pets, such as dogs, are at the center of the performance.
“I’m a firm believer in animal rights and animal welfare, and I have to come down on the side of compassion on this issue,” said one woman. “We understand our place in the world better than we used to. We’re a more compassionate world today.”
Those who spoke against the ordinance said it would all but cripple the Western Montana Shrine Circus.
Supporters have yet to state in public testimony how much the organization makes at the local circus each year, saying only that it ranges from a high of $30,000 to a loss. When it does make money, one man stated, 94 percent of the proceeds go to transporting patients to Shriners hospitals.
Barry Hartman, secretary of the Western Montana Shrine Club, compared banning the circus to Target banning the boys' and girls' department.
“The elephants we bring in are born in captivity, raised in captivity and are very well taken care of,” said Hartman. “In the wild, they’re poaching 100 elephants a day. In Africa, they have bush meat. It’s any animal they can chop up and sell. If this ban comes, it’s just the beginning. You’re opening Pandora’s box.”
One man suggested people should have the right to do what they want, so long as it doesn’t hurt other citizens. Another man accused supporters of trying to legislate the enjoyment of others.
One opponent said animal rights were going to destroy this country, while a woman broke down into tears, saying she feared for the children.
“I speak for the children,” she said. “The children love the animals. They’ll be crushed if they come to a circus and don’t see the animals. To ban an act like this would be – it would be just horrid.”