Animal cruelty?

A debate surrounding 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.

Last week, a Missoula City Council committee heard arguments for and against a proposal to ban wild and exotic animal acts in Missoula.

Among those opposed to the proposed ordinance are members of the Western Montana Shrine Club, which brings the circus to town each year as the group’s primary fundraiser for the Shriners Hospital for Children. The local Shriners are worried the ban could put an end to their circus.

That would be a shame. But forcing bears, tigers and elephants to perform in circus acts is also shameful, and it’s time to put an end to the practice. The show can go on without exotic animals.

The ordinance language being considered by Missoula council members was drafted by an expert in animal law and patterned after similar ordinances adopted in other communities throughout the United States.

It seeks to make it unlawful for anyone to use wild or exotic animal displays or performances for commercial purposes in the city of Missoula. As such, it does not apply to domesticated animals, or to educational organizations that feature live animals.

The circus can be a magical and fun family outing, and local Shriners bring theirs to town each year with worthy intentions. But it is in no way an educational event. Indeed, tiger tamers and elephant rides send children the wrong message about how to interact with non-domesticated animals.

These animals are often subjected to inhumane treatment and inadequate conditions. Even the best-cared-for circus animals spend much of their lives in small enclosures, traveling from city to city to perform unnatural acts before crowds of people.

“These animals are loved and cherished by the owners,” circus chairman Dean Gillmore told members of the Public Safety and Health Committee last week. “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.”

With all due respect, we beg to differ. Bears, elephants and tigers are not pets. They are undomesticated animals that must be handled with great care to minimize the risk of injury to humans.

Those born in captivity should be afforded a life that at least approximates the kind of life they would live in the wild, one in which the specific needs of their species can be met as much as possible. Presumably, that does not include jumping through fiery hoops or wearing a hat or taking children for rides around a tiny ring.

As growing numbers of people voice their unwillingness to attend a circus that exploits exotic animals, and more communities enact bans on such acts, some circus managers are taking it upon themselves to replace exotic animal performances with other options. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey recently announced that they would be phasing out elephant acts.

Instead, they are shining their spotlights on flying trapeze artists, aerialists, acrobats, daredevils and clowns. Some include domesticated animals such as horses and dogs. You know, pets.

There are many, many circus acts from which to choose. If the Jordan World Circus is unwilling to stop using exotic animals, the Shriners should see if another circus would like to visit Missoula in its place.

It’s a safe bet that a circus free of exotic animals would have Missoula’s unequivocal support.

Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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