A proposed ban on wild and exotic animal performances in Missoula passed a City Council committee Wednesday for the second time on a unanimous vote, but only after its authors made changes to the legislation.
Version 2.0 of the proposed law addresses concerns made during last week’s City Council meeting, when the ordinance was sent back the Public Safety and Health Committee for additional work.
Its critics showed up Wednesday, including Ward 6 council member Ed Childers.
“I believe the ordinance that’s here today is better than the other one,” said Childers. “It doesn’t do exactly what I’d like it to do, but it’s not my ordinance.”
Public testimony provided during Wednesday’s committee hearing saw arguments similar to those that have been aired over the past two months, with some saying the proposal would end the Western Montana Shrine Circus while others said it would be forced to evolve to changing social values.
But Wednesday’s debate also explored the definition of domestic animals, which are described in the document as being “tame by nature.”
Opponents of the ordinance believe elephants and camels have been domesticated for thousands of years and, therefore, shouldn’t be banned from performing.
“This idea that we’re protecting a wild and exotic animal, that’s my concern,” said Harlan Wells. “This ordinance is giving them (elephants and camels) a definition the rest of the world doesn’t hold.”
But supporters of the ordinance said the true definition of domestication went beyond the training of an individual animal forced to perform or work.
Rather, it resulted from purposeful breeding over countless generations to accentuate certain domestic qualities.
“Elephants have never been domesticated,” argued Chris Barnes. “They act in a general fashion sometimes, but their genes have not been manipulated to the point that science describes them as being in a different species than their wild progenitor.”
As written, the ordinance does more than protect elephants and camels. It covers 15 genus that include large cats, bears, marsupials, crocodilians and non-human primates, among others.
Wells and other opponents of the measure also brought up the lingering “slippery slope” argument, where some argue the ordinance will eventually creep down to the rodeo and other “Montana traditions.”
Others, however, took issue with that statement, saying the ordinance makes no mention of the rodeo and doesn’t touch livestock. They accused those using the slippery slope argument of fear mongering and trying to shift attention away from the issue at hand.
“By using such extreme hypothetics, we’re appealing to the emotion of this policy by leveraging fear,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. “It unfairly taints this issue with unsubstantiated conjecture. It shifts the focus away from the animals we’re talking about, and the issues are not related.”
Members of the Western Montana Shrine, including circus chair Dean Gillmore, maintained that banning wild and exotic animals would all but end the circus, which has visited Missoula for the past 65 years.
One man said the City Council could “amend the ordinance to death,” but it would “still kill the Shrine Circus.” Another said circus animals are well cared for and that handlers have never been charged with animal cruelty while stopping in Missoula.
But supporters said the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has already pledged to phase out the use of its elephants by 2018. The Los Angeles Shriners last year announced they would stop using performance animals at the circus.
“That was an 88-year tradition,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “It is indeed very possible.”
In recent hearings, supporters of the wild and exotic animal ban have pledged to support the Shriners by donating to its fundraiser for the Shriners Hospitals for Children.
Those who supported the ordinance also pushed to exempt the next circus from the ordinance, should it pass. The proposed ban, which faces two City Council hearings in the weeks ahead, would not take effect until July 1 of next year.
“I have come, in my mind through much argument with my wife and myself, to believe that it’s time to let this tradition sunset,” said Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins. “I think the circus can go on and be very successful. I think there’s a need in Missoula for the Shrine Circus, and I think it can thrive.”
The City Council will hold its first of two hearings on the draft of the new ordinance at 7 p.m. Monday.