Missoula's City Council is spot-on for considering a ban on the use of exotic animals for commercial purposes. Enacting a prohibition would help put an end to an archaic tradition that should have died out decades ago.
Nowhere is the need more obvious than with the Western Montana Shrine Circus that rolls into town each spring. Along with the acrobats, clowns and those motorcycle daredevils who vroom upside down in a metal cage are camels, tiger and three elephants who are herded into the ring to perform eight minutes' worth of tricks.
Circus spokesmen insist their wild animals enjoy performing. Don't believe it.
Wrenched from their mothers at an early age, they are forced to learn their stunts. Their home is not some sunny savannah but the mind-numbing bowels of a tractor trailer. The animals travel tens of thousands of miles a year in these windowless dungeons, locked in tiny cages or chained in place.
There's nothing natural or educational about what they are made to do. And, in the case of the elephants, life in the circus can turn into a death sentence. All that standing around on hard surfaces, denied the chance to roam, leads to infections in their feet that literally kills some of them years too soon.
I learned the disturbing truth about circus life when I began delving into the story of an elephant who'd spent 23 years traveling with a Shrine Circus. Like all circus elephants, Billie lived in constant fear of bullhooks, those fireplace poker-shaped weapons used by trainers to yank and wallop elephants who have trouble balancing on a tub or standing on their hind legs. That's a lot of misery for just a few minutes of tawdry amusement. The tricks she performed had about as much meaning as the glo-sticks and whoopee cushions kids clamor for as they head inside the arena.
Yet Billie was lucky. Nine years ago she was rescued and trucked to an elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. She still suffers anxiety from her abuse but, at 53, she has developed close friendships in her new home, and every once in a while she trumpets with utter elation at the chance to splash about in a pond or explore the woods and meadows. She's finally living the life every elephant deserves the chance to live, and watching her via the sanctuary's "ele-cams" — www.elephants.com — is so much more gratifying than any stunt she might pull off in a ring.
More and more Americans are beginning to understand the cruelty inherent in circus life, and a number of cities across the country have outlawed bullhooks, knowing that without them, circuses will not be able to make elephants perform.
The bans have made a difference. Bowing to pressure, the largest circus in America, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, plans to phase out performing elephants by 2018. But smaller circuses like the one that travels through Montana have yet to announce any intention of retiring their exotic animals.
So here's your chance, Missoula, to make that decision for them. Support the proposal that would stop promoters from exploiting wild animals. The circus's human characters — the ones who choose to perform — are dazzling enough. Regardless of what the Shriners say, this shameful chapter in entertainment history needs to come to a close.