A proposed ordinance banning wild and exotic animal shows is expected to get a reboot, as the committee that approved the measure tweaks the language and attempts to send it back to the Missoula City Council for reconsideration.
This time, however, members of the City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee have invited the measure’s critics to the table, saying opposing council members should address the ordinance’s alleged flaws instead of whitewashing it as “inconsistent.”
Three weeks ago, the committee approved the ordinance on a unanimous vote. The City Council heard the measure last week and received testimony from nearly three-dozen people, most of whom supported a citywide ban on wild and exotic animal shows.
But as the council prepared to vote on the ordinance, Ward 6 council member Ed Childers and Ward 4 council member Patrick Weasel Head intervened. They said the plan was inconsistent, and they led the charge to send it back to committee.
Childers said he wasn’t a member of the committee and didn't have a chance to articulate what he sees as flaws in the legislation. He later explained his goals and said he’s willing to help clarify the language.
“My main interest at this point is to put an ordinance together that accurately reflects what the sponsors of the ordinance want,” Childers said, adding that he wasn’t sure what that was. “If their goal is to ban elephants and tigers and such from the circus, at this point, I don’t think I’d support it.”
As proposed, the ordinance would ban wild and exotic animal exhibits and performances, including circus elephants and shows that use tigers for entertainment. Supporters of the ordinance have been clear in saying the measure would not impact rodeos or educational events.
Jon Wilkins, chairman of the Public Safety and Health Committee, challenged Childers and Weasel Head to attend the committee meetings and help craft a stronger document. But he also cast doubt on whether they were willing to do so.
“(Childers) and (Weasel Head) didn’t like the way the ordinance read, and out of courtesy, I sent it back to committee,” Wilkins later said. “It wasn’t that I believed it had to go back.”
The ordinance will remain on the committee’s docket for two additional hearings, the first taking place this week. It’s there, Wilkins said, where opponents can help refine the document, if that’s really their goal.
Monday’s vote left supporters of the ordinance frustrated and surprised.
Ward 4 council member Annelise Hedahl supported the ordinance in committee, but changed her vote Monday and sent it back to the same committee.
“I was a little frustrated with that,” said Stacy Gordon, a professor of animal law at the University of Montana and an ordinance supporter. “It’s based on ordinances already working in other places. Had I been asked questions, I could have addressed the points and showed that it wasn’t vague.”
Critics on the City Council said the measure failed to protect public health, and it failed to protect wild and exotic animals from abuse, one of the authors’ primary goals. They also said the ordinance didn’t clarify terms like “tame by nature” or “domestic.”
Ward 2 council member Adam Hertz suggested elephants have been domesticated since 2000 B.C. Childers also argued that even domestic animals don’t always act domestically.
“It (the ordinance) says a domestic animal is tame by nature,” Childers argued. “It doesn’t define tame or tame by nature. I know my mother-in-law’s cat leaves scratches down her arm. It doesn’t seem very tame.”
Hedahl, who helped the ordinance pass unanimously from the committee but later voted to send it back, said her thoughts on the measure have shifted.
While she has not made up her mind, she said it’s possible she could vote against it during the next round of voting in the weeks ahead.
“I think, initially, there was so much support one way, and we hadn’t heard from the other side,” said Hedahl. “If you’re going to do it, you have to make sure it’s protecting the right groups. I’m interested in revisiting it and listening to how the other council members feel.”
Supporters and opponents of the measure have both commented in length at past hearings. But Hedahl said the emails and phone calls she’s received have brought new perspectives to the debate.
She now believes the ordinance could “trickle down to rodeos and other Montana pastimes,” despite language in the measure stating otherwise.
“I’m still on the fence on how I feel about the whole thing,” she said. “I think the testimony had compelling arguments on both sides. You have to make sure there are not unintended consequences. It needs to be reviewed with a fine-tooth comb.”
Supporters of the measure have quietly argued that it was the committee’s job to review the ordinance the first time, and they assumed the committee had vetted the measure when it unanimously passed.
“Writing good laws is hard and it takes a long time,” said Gordon. “When we go back to committee (this week), we can address everything that was raised. We’re not at all deterred.”
Wilkins believes the ordinance will again find its way back to the council, where it likely has the support needed to pass. Seven council members on Monday voted to keep it on the floor for an up or down vote.
“I’m pretty confident it will pass out of committee, and will actually become an ordinance at some time,” Wilkins said. “I’ve talked to a few councilors who’ve supported it about putting an amendment on it to give the Shriners one more year to get prepared.”
Calls to Dean Gillmore, chairman of the Western Montana Shrine Circus, were not returned last week. Gillmore has opposed the ordinance at every step in the process, saying banning elephant performances would end the circus, which serves as a fundraiser for Shriners Hospitals for Children.
But the Shriners’ contract with the Jordan World Circus expires after this year. A one-year delay in the ordinance's implementation would give Shriners a chance to contract with a different circus.
A number of circuses nationwide already have ended the use of exotic animal acts.
“I don’t think it would be fair to throw this at them (Shriners) and make them lose money,” Wilkins said. “I sympathize with them. They’ve been a good organization, but it’s also time to start thinking of ways to have a circus without exotic animals. There are other circuses that have been successful in doing so.”