Consider an elephant confined to the back of a truck riding the nation’s highways for 50 weeks a year. On occasion, it’s released from chains to perform for the pleasure of people before it’s sent back into the cargo hold at the end of a bull hook.
Such is the life of a circus elephant, as described in the Los Angeles Times, where readers were challenged to consider how wild animals learn such “unnatural skills” as standing on a table or jumping through a flaming hula hoop.
But you don’t need to read the Los Angeles Times to encounter such concerns. They surfaced last week at the Missoula City Council, where Breanne Ender and Spider McKnight, among others, challenged officials to ban the use of wild and exotic animals in shows and exhibits within the city.
“It’s 2015 and we’re still trucking in wild animals,” said McKnight. “We’re bringing them into our basketball arena with sharp hooks and teaching our kids that cruelty to animals is just OK. In the past, you’ve had a way of righting wrongs, and I’m asking you to do that again.”
A group of local animal advocates wants to add Missoula to a growing list of U.S. cities that ban commercial exhibits and shows using wild and exotic animals, including the Shrine Circus featuring the Jordan World Circus, which stopped in Missoula two weeks ago.
Calling such acts cruel and archaic – if not downright unnecessary – the group is drafting an ordinance to bring to the City Council for consideration this summer.
“We wanted to raise the issue now because the circus is fresh in people’s mind,” said Stacey Gordon, an expert in animal law and director of the law library at the University of Montana. “There have been concerns over the circus, and the wild animal exhibit at the fair.”
Last year, a New York man brought his “Animal Alley” exhibit to the Western Montana Fair. The exhibit contained 18 exotic creatures, including a fox, a chinchilla and an American 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 Missoula group wants to change.
While the language of their ordinance remains a work in progress, Gordon said, it seeks to ban the use of wild and exotic animals for commercial entertainment.
That would include the Shrine Circus, magic shows and the Great Rockies Sport Show. Held recently at UM, the latter event featured exotic cats, including a tiger, which is pictured on the program’s website with a chain around its neck.
“I understand people wanting to see wild animals, but in reality, most people don’t know the cruelty that underlies those animals being in the circus,” said Gordon. “They’re seeing animals whose spirits have been broken.”
The conversation isn’t restricted to Missoula. Under public pressure, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey recently announced 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.
The Shrine Circus contracts with various circus groups across the country to hold shows on behalf of the fraternal organization. On its website, the circus states a zero-tolerance policy for animal abuse and cruelty.
The circus couldn't be reached for comment on the proposed ordinance in Missoula.
“The health and well-being of each animal is our priority and central to the success of our shows,” the circus states on its website. “Ensuring our animal performers are well-taken care of is a priority for us at the Shrine Circus.”
But advocates of banning wild and exotic animal acts point to reports of abuse, neglect and mishaps documented at Shrine-affiliated shows over the past 15 years.
A fire in 2004 before the El Katif Shrine Circus in Spokane killed at least 10 cats – including a bobcat – when their trailer burned.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited the Hejaz Shrine Circus in South Carolina for failing to provide adequate veterinary care for three of its elephants. Each had lost more than 500 pounds and had assumed a sallow appearance.
But it’s what allegedly goes on behind the scenes and beyond the public eye that has Missoula advocates calling for change.
“In reality, most people don’t know the cruelty that underlies those animals being in the circus,” said Gordon. “They spend most of their life chained up and they’re often drugged during transport. Imagine being a big elephant stuck in a train car or truck every day. Most people don’t realize that and wouldn’t support that.”
Ginny Merriam, the city’s communication’s director, said any proposed ordinance must go through the public process, including a review by the appropriate committee, a public hearing and eventual approval by the council.
It’s a push advocates are willing to take this year and they’re building support. During the latest Shrine Circus, Kathleen Stachowski and others organized protesters to picket the event and raise awareness. She’s been at it since 2011 and continues to call for change.
“People showed up from Superior to Florence to hold signs and distribute information making the case that captive animal performances are inherently cruel,” Stachowski said. “The circus can’t meet the physical, mental and emotional needs of captive wild animals.”
Gordon added that the group is working on the language of the ordinance. They will likely model the proposal on laws passed in other cities, including Santa Ana, California, and Richmond, Missouri.
In that city, it’s illegal to undertake an exhibition, act, circus, carnival, race or other performance in which wild or exotic animals are required to do tricks, fight or participate in shows for the amusement or benefit of an audience.
The ordinance also lists 19 species ranging from elephants and primates to alligators, badgers and ostriches. Gordon said a Missoula ordinance would be similar.
While it would not prohibit rodeos or educational events like Raptors of the Rockies, it would target the circus and other exotic exhibitions.
“There are other cities that have either a prohibition against circus elephants or wild animal shows, and that’s where we’re going,” Gordon said. “We’re looking at the prohibition of wild animals. We aren’t just targeting the circus, though they would fall under the ordinance we would like to propose as long as they have wild animals.”