A new bill banning the display of wild or exotic animals for entertainment purposes could really put a damper on the festivities the next time the circus comes to town.
Int. 0049, introduced by City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez (D-Manhattan), refers to any public entertainment where these animals would be required to perform tricks, fight or participate as accompaniments for the amusement or benefit of an audience. Things like exhibitions, carnivals, parades, races and, of course, circuses could be affected. Violators could face a fine of up to $1,000 for each infraction.
The bill is being supported by two Queens lawmakers — City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) and City Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights).
“Exotic animals need to be kept in a natural environment,” Dromm said. “When the circus comes to Madison Square Garden, the animals are kept in cages and some of them have sores. They are made to perform three or our times a day. It can have a negative effect on their health.”
There are more than two dozen animal-free circuses worldwide, and Dromm says that is a sign of the times.
“Circuses can be just as successful without the use of large exotic animals,” Dromm said. “The traditional circus is old-fashioned and outdated. Even zoos have moved from keeping animals in cages to putting them in a more natural habitat. We have become more conscious about animal care especially as more species move towards extinction.”
The bill would exclude any institution accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, operated by the state Wildlife Conservation Society, a veterinarian in the ordinary course of business, wildlife sanctuary and laboratory operating within the guidelines of the state public health law.
“We are opposed to it,” said Tom Albert, a spokesman for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. “We think it is totally unnecessary and unjustified, and it would prevent us from bringing our shows to New York City.”
Mendez introduced the legislation last year after speaking to various animal rights groups who were worried about what they believe is the inhumane treatment of animals performing in these shows, and they presented her with similar legislation that was enacted in other cities and countries.
“I had a friend who was a performer in the Ringling Brothers Circus — she was a showgirl, and I remember how grueling her schedule was, so I could only imagine what it must be like for the animals,” Mendez said.
The lawmaker further stated that in 2006 the Bronx Zoo decided to get rid of its elephants partly because they needed more roaming space. So how could the circus possibly provide adequate room for such large creatures?” she asked.
“Animals require a certain amount of open space,” Mendez said. “There have been several examples in different cities where animals have escaped and attacked individuals or their trainers. Part of that is because they don’t like being caged.”
Albert said Ringling Bros. is proud of the way it cares for its animals, making sure to meet their physical, social and psychological needs. The company enjoys showing the positive interaction between animals and humans at their many shows, which attract thousands of people, Albert said.
Albert also noted that the circus is licensed and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is regulated by the Animal Welfare Act, a federal law requiring that “the minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public.”
When asked if making the animals perform tricks is humiliating or degrading to them, Albert stated it is not. “I don’t understand this whole anthropomorphism of animals,” he said. “They don’t feel in the same way that we do.”
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals opposes the use of animals in circuses and side shows, because, the group says the animals are “forced to perform these meaningless and physically uncomfortable tricks, trainers use whips, tight collars, muzzles, electric prods, bullhooks and other painful tools.”
Delcianna Winders, a spokeswoman for the animal rights group, says the organization supports Mendez’s legislation. “It is very important considering the lonely, miserable lives of animals in circuses,” Winders said.
PETA further alleges that “in the Ringling Bros. circus, elephants are beaten, hit, poked, prodded, and jabbed with sharp hooks, sometimes until bloody.”
That is something Albert denies. He further disputes the images of elephant abuse that PETA has on its website displaying Ringing Bros. trainers using ropes to restrain elephants. Albert said the animals are doing what they would in nature — walking, standing, stretching, but they are learning to do the actions in a particular sequence.
The ropes act as a harness, he said, preventing the elephant from tipping over and hurting itself. He further states that thick gauze is placed between the ropes and the animal’s skin to prevent chaffing, the animals are on a soft sand to prevent injury, and they are rewarded by their trainer with treats.
The ASPCA also opposes the use of wild or exotic animals in circuses and sideshows because of “the stress, cruelty and physical, social and psychological deprivations that the animals inevitably suffer, as a direct result of being on the road much of the year.”
The Big Apple Circus is not too concerned about the bill. Since it only uses horses, dogs and goats, its performances would not be affected. It used to incorporate elephants, but they haven’t appeared since the 1999-2000 season. They and their owner had gotten up in age and decided to retire. The elephants were not replaced due to cost factors.
“The animals are extremely well-cared for,” said circus spokesman Joel Dein. “They are fed the highest quality food. They get regular dental and health check-ups and are given a bath everyday.”
Dein said that most circuses in general treat their animals well, but that there is good and bad in every industry. He noted that animals that are abused are “sullen, wouldn’t want to work and would hide.”
“People are just painting us all with the same brush,” Dein said. “Research has shown that circus animals are treated better than those in zoos and at wildlife preserves.”