Local groups eye ban on circus animal acts

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A8

No lions or tigers or bears?

Oh, my!

As Seattle prepares to become the first major American city to ban circus animal acts, local animal-rights groups hope to fight a similar battle here.

“I want to start talking to people to see if we can get a law like that in Toledo,” said Mike Nestor, president of Toledo Area People for Animal Rights.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell has proposed an ordinance that would ban animal acts in any circus that comes to the city. The legislation has at least five supporters on the nine-member council and is expected to pass soon. The law would ban everything from large three-ring affairs to the tiniest flea circus.

Stopping circus acts, along with fur and medical research, has been one of the major issues of American animal activists. In pamphlets distributed at circuses and on the Internet, they describe horrible tales of animals confined to tiny cages for days on end and of animals being beaten savagely to do tricks.

The largest and most famous circus, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, has been the major opponent of the Seattle ordinance, saying that it will cancel all of its performances in the city and those of its sister show, Walt Disney’s World on Ice.

But smaller circuses defend their profession just as vehemently, arguing that animal acts bring joy to millions and are not cruel.

“That ban is ill-conceived and just part of the animal-rights agenda,” said David Rawls, president of the Kelly Miller Circus based in Hugo, Okla. Kelly Miller performs in northwest Ohio most summers, including shows in Bowling Green and Wauseon in 1999.

Mr. Rawls said that because of the enormous expense of many animals – an Asian elephant costs $100,000 – circuses do not treat them poorly. “They’re as well cared for as anyone’s pet,” he said.

“Now, there are some exceptions to the rule, just as with pet owners. But the vast majority are very well treated. We name them after members of our families and our loved ones, and that tells you how important they are to us.”

Circuses face regular inspections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as local animal welfare inspectors in the cities in which they perform.

The attacks on circuses are occurring as their traditional role seems to be waning. Throughout much of the century, circuses were one of the few sources of entertainment in small towns across America. For weeks, some people anticipated the coming of the big top. The circus’ itinerant lifestyle loomed large in a largely rooted American culture.

But now, with an endless variety of entertainment sources available and higher costs for putting on a big show, circuses are vulnerable.

According to the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, no cities in Ohio or Michigan have banned circus animal acts. But local animal-rights groups, including Mr. Nestor’s, have protested outside of almost all Toledo circus performances in recent years.

If it bans the acts, Seattle will become the first major American city to do so, but several smaller cities, including Takoma Park, Md.; Hollywood, Fla., and Collinsville, Ill., have passed bans. So have hundreds of cities in other countries.

Mr. Nestor said that getting a similar ban passed in Toledo or Lucas County will be difficult for the next several years, but he wants to try.

Doug Porter, the assistant director of the Toledo Zoo, said he would support a ban on circus animal performances in Toledo because standards of animal cruelty have changed in recent decades. “I think there are some wonderful circuses and circus acts, and I would not like to see circuses banned,” he said, “but I think they can do without the lions in cages with whips and chairs.”

He said circus animals kept in confined spaces – as is required by the train and truck travel needed to take the show on the road – can lead animals to develop behavioral problems and turn on trainers or the audience.

Mr. Nestor said other circuses, like the successful Cirque du Soleil, have thrived without animal acts. He said larger circuses like Ringling Brothers generally have better animal-welfare records than smaller efforts.

“Ringling probably has the best reputation of them all, but they’ve still got problems,” he said. Ringling has been criticized by animal activists for a variety of alleged problems, including whippings and the use of electric prods.

But Mr. Rawls insists that circuses are protectors of their animals and that incidents of abuse are rare. He said this sort of ban is just the start of an animal-rights agenda that could lead to ending rodeos and meat-eating. “We’re just the first ones they attack,” he said. “Eventually, their agenda will reach everything involving animals.”

Cathleen Anderson, a city commissioner in Hollywood, Fla., said she is proud that her city is one of the few to ban animal acts. “We’ve been the model for other cities,” said Ms. Anderson, who was a commissioner when the law was passed about 10 years ago. “We won’t let Ringling Brothers in town, and the public has really supported the change.”

Ms. Anderson, who was the main force behind the law, said it was prompted by three small ponies that were left tethered to a post for three days and nights during a downtown street fair. “Those poor animals were suffering, and we discovered that there was nothing the law could do about it,” she said.

The animal-rights movement has been divided by the differing beliefs of its members. Some would be happy with incremental changes in the quality of life for animals, while others want the more wide-ranging changes Mr. Rawls said he fears.

“It’s barbaric what happens to some of these animals,” said Mark Whitt, a local coordinator for Animals Deserve Absolute Protection Today and Tomorrow, which he describes as “more radical” than other groups. “This goes on outside the eye of the public, but people are starting to realize what’s going on.”

“There’s a wide range of opinion,” Mr. Nestor said. “I don’t really have a problem with animals being kept in zoos, but some people disagree with me on that.”

But Mr. Porter said important differences exist in the way zoos and circuses operate. “We operate in the open, with people examining us all the time,” he said. “Circuses are private and closed off.”

Mr. Porter admits that the Toledo Zoo, as recently as the 1960s, used to force animals to perform for patrons, “things like polar bears on motorcycles.” In that era, some zoo animals were kept in fairly confined spaces.

“But the difference is that zoos have moved on from that,” Mr. Porter said. “We as a society have decided that that’s not acceptable anymore. But the circuses haven’t moved on. They’re doing things just as they’ve been doing them for 150 years.”