Capping months of debate, Missoula on Monday became the first city in Montana to ban the use wild and exotic animals in shows and non-educational displays.
Following one last night of public comment, the City Council approved the measure on an 8-3 vote, saying it was time to apply what “we know versus what we do” regarding the treatment of animals.
“I’m confident this (Western Montana Shrine) Circus can be a success without any animal acts,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg, who championed the ordinance. “I don’t look at this as banning the Shriners.”
Among other things, the ban covers elephants common to the Western Montana Shrine Circus, along with exotic white tigers, snow leopards and African lions used in the Great Cats of the World, which performed in Missoula in March.
It does not impact the rodeo or livestock events.
As written, however, some opponents argued it would do little to stop the exploitation of wild and exotic animals.
“We’re not making that major change, that systemic change that I’d like to see,” said Ward 4 council member Patrick Weasel Head. “If there’s a need to protect circus-type behavior, start at the beginning. Stop the animals from being recruited.”
Weasel Head used the same argument two weeks ago when voting against the measure during its first reading. But several council members disagreed, saying action at the local level can influence broader change.
“We live in a capitalistic country that operates on a market system,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “The exploitation of these animals is a commodity. This is an important thing we're doing, and I feel good about it.”
Ward 5 council member Mike O’Herron also disagreed with Weasel Head’s reasoning.
“If we reduce the demand for exotic animals, we’ll decrease the supply,” said O’Herron. “That’s happening around the country.”
At least 35 cities in 16 states have enacted various wild and exotic animal bans, including Boulder, Colorado; Redmond, Washington; and San Francisco, California.
Other communities have not gone as far, but have banned the use of instruments used to control wild animals, including bull hooks and shock devices.
“It’s not right to take wild animals out of their element, to hurt and abuse them just to make money,” said supporter Sarah Coffey. “They cage them all their lives and they hurt them while forcing them to perform in front of people to make money.”
Other supporters viewed the animals used in circuses and other shows as archaic. One supporter said those who rely upon the circus to see elephants and tigers are seeing prisoners and human domination.
“I think it’s a cruel and unusual practice,” he said.
Monday night’s crowd was far smaller in number when compared to past hearings on the issue. Only one member of the Western Montana Shrine Club spoke in opposition to the ordinance.
Grover Barr said that while the ordinance’s author – van Lossberg – had spoken eloquently on behalf of the animals, he failed to address the Shriners’ support of their hospitals by providing children free transportation for critical care.
“I was dismayed there was no research on the Shriners and what they do,” said Barr. “The Western Montana Shrine Circus helped 500 Montana children who needed help last year.”
Barr urged the council to reconsider its vote.
“We do not have anything in place, contrary to what some of you want to believe, to take over that position where we get our donations,” he said. “We get most of our funding from the circus. This will affect our donations.”
But supporters of the ordinance stressed that their vote was not a case against the Shriners and their fundraising efforts.
“This was a hard decision for me,” said Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins. “I don’t think it’s going to be the end of the Shrine circus. You might be stronger than you were in the past. I support the Shriners 100 percent.”
As they have done in the past, several supporters pledged to help the Shriners find other ways to raise money, and to host a successful circus without the use of exotic animals.
They noted the success of other circuses held in cities that have enacted similar bans.
“This is not an issue of the Shriners versus the animals,” said small-business owner Spider McKnight. “I will help the Shriners personally with my company, to make sure we get people in your seats. This is not about doing anything against the Shriners. It’s about doing the right thing for animals.”
Supporters postponed the effective date of the ordinance to July 2016 to allow the Western Montana Shrine Circus one last show using its elephants, saying the circus was already under contract.