Baltimore County weighs ban on circus animals

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Two Maryland counties are considering banning traveling animal acts, essentially telling circuses they’re no longer

Even as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has gone out of business, due in part to pressure from animal-rights activists, smaller circuses still criss-cross the country with lions, bears, elephants and other exotic animals.

Now two Maryland counties are considering banning traveling animal acts, essentially telling circuses they’re no longer welcome.

In Baltimore County, Councilwoman Cathy Bevins said the county should lead by example and ban acts and shows that feature a long list of exotic and wild animals. She has introduced a bill to ban the exotic animal shows. A public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 26.

“I just think that Baltimore County is better than that, to have this practice coming through our county,” the Middle River Democrat said. “I think it’s inhumane.”

The Montgomery County Council is weighing similar legislation, with a vote planned later this year.

The proposals could set up a battle pitting animal lovers against circus lovers.

baltimore-county-weighs-ban-on-circus-animals photo 1

The elephants in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus end a 33 year tradition in Baltimore of eating a "brunch" in front of a crowd. The Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation will become their permanent home. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

The elephants in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus end a 33 year tradition in Baltimore of eating a "brunch" in front of a crowd. The Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation will become their permanent home. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

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Baltimore County Councilman Julian Jones is in the pro-circus camp. The UniverSoul Circus has been setting up its big top at Security Square Mall on the western side of the county for years.

Jones said he’s always loved the circus, which he’s shared with his children and grandchildren.

He sees the issue as one of personal choice: If people don’t like the use of animals in the circus, they should not attend.

“I think it’s absurd to suggest we ban the circus or circus animals,” said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat. “The circus gives tremendous joy and pleasure to so many children.”

UniverSoul, believed to be the only African-American-owned circus in the country, is the only circus that stops in Baltimore County. This year, UniverSoul put on 37 shows during a three-week run at Security Square in June.

County health officials inspect all of UniverSoul’s animals and living conditions while they are here. UniverSoul has had no county violations, officials said.

In a statement, UniverSoul said the company is aware of the Baltimore County legislation and “monitoring” it.

“In the meantime, the UniverSoul Circus will continue to provide quality entertainment for families across the country,” the statement read. “Circuses have always inspired the positive, progressive movement of mankind. They have and always will reflect our humanity, strength, commonality and resilience.”

Montgomery County also is weighing a ban on exhibits or shows involving performances by exotic animals.

Dozens of people attended a public hearing in support of the Montgomery ban in July, with one person testifying against the proposed ban. Eight of nine council members are co-sponsoring the ban, virtually assuring its passage.

baltimore-county-weighs-ban-on-circus-animals photo 2 Chris Kaltenbach

An American institution will be coming to an end soon, and Bill Price wants to be sure his grandkids don't miss the experience.

He's been planning for weeks to take 10-year-old Lexi and 6-year-old James to the circus when it comes to Baltimore this week. After 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum...

An American institution will be coming to an end soon, and Bill Price wants to be sure his grandkids don't miss the experience.

He's been planning for weeks to take 10-year-old Lexi and 6-year-old James to the circus when it comes to Baltimore this week. After 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum...

(Chris Kaltenbach)

Montgomery County Councilman Craig Rice, one of the lead sponsors, said he’s concerned about the suffering of circus animals as well as the public safety risk of animals that might act out or escape. He thinks the circus can be enjoyable without animals.

“Those are times of the past,” he said. “We don’t need to have lions and tigers and bears and elephants dancing in tutus on pedestals to have enjoyment.”

Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal, another lead sponsor, said he’s received overwhelming support for the exotic animals ban.

“Audience demands are changing,” he said. “You can be entertained without putting wild and exotic animals outside of their habitat in all kinds of unnatural settings.”

Rice and Leventhal said they plan to adjust their ban to make clear that farm animals are exempt, addressing concerns from farmers that 4-H events and agricultural fairs would be affected. They predicted the revised bill would pass in the next few months.

Each county’s proposed ban has a detailed list of animals covered. In Baltimore County, it includes common circus animals such as lions, tigers, elephants and bears. It also covers hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, primates, sharks and kangaroos, among others. Farm animals such as cattle, pigs, sheep and goats would not be included in Baltimore County’s ban.

Using animals in a traveling show in Baltimore County would be classified as a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail. A separate violation could be filed for each animal.

Bevins said she was inspired by watching a TV report on how the use of wild animals in circuses was banned in Peru.

“I was conflicted at first,” Bevins said. “This isn’t going to stop them. It only stops them from coming into our county.”

But Bevins reasoned that if enough cities and counties say “no thanks” to circuses with exotic animals, then maybe the circuses will respond by getting rid of their animal acts.

Dozens of cities and counties have either banned exotic animal acts or banned certain training tools that could cause suffering to the animals. Several Virginia counties have a ban on public contact with wild animals.

Most recently, the New York City Council voted in July to ban wild animal acts in circuses, where — like Baltimore County — UniverSoul is the only circus affected.

Deborah Stone Hess, a local animal advocate who blogs about animal welfare issues, said attitudes are changing about how animals should be treated. The kind of treatment that was acceptable decades ago is not palatable to modern audiences, she said.

“Many people have sentimental feelings about the circus … But would they be comfortable taking their kids behind the curtains and allowing them to see how the animals are treated, and the cruelty of the training?” said Stone Hess, who also chairs Baltimore County’s Animal Services Advisory Commission.

Stone Hess said she believes circuses can still be successful without exotic animals.

“It’s not because we want to put people out of business,” she said. “This is not being done in a vindictive way. It is encouraging them to adopt different kinds of business practices.”

The parent company of Ringling Bros. cited animal issues as among reasons it folded up its tent this year. Ringling Bros. retired its famous elephants a year ago due to pressure from animal rights activists. A sharp drop in ticket sales followed.

Ringling Bros. put on its final show in Baltimore at the Royal Farms Arena in April as part of its farewell tour before closing for good in May.

pwood@baltsun.com

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Article Baltimore County weighs ban on circus animals compiled by www.baltimoresun.com