Dr. Dennis Schmitt, chair of Veterinary Services and Director of Research in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animal stewardship department, pictured with an elephant. Photo courtesy Feld Entertainment.
Circus elephants. Photo courtesy Feld Entertainment.

Bears, elephants and snakes may be barred from circuses in Los Angeles after a city councilman introduced a bill to outlaw performing animals being treated like “toys.”

Councilman David Ryu introduced a motion asking the city attorney to draft an ordinance to make it illegal to exhibit or rent out animals like lions and elephants, and certain reptiles, snakes and birds, purely to amuse or entertain.

“Animals are majestic beings — they are part of our ecosystem,” Ryu said Wednesday. “They are not toys.”

“Bears should not be dressed in a costume and made to balance on the balls,” Ryu said.

The proposed ban would apply to circuses, businesses that put on animal shows and companies that rent animals out to house parties.

Accredited zoos, such as the Los Angeles Zoo, would be exempted, as would the use of such animals for filming, research purposes and conservation presentations.

Ryu said the issue first came to his attention through his efforts to crack down on particularly extravagant and rowdy house parties in the Hollywood Hills where animals sometimes serve as diversions for guests.

While there are some existing ways to prevent wild and exotic animals from being used at house parties, such as laws concerning the transportation of wild and exotic animals, there is nothing in the books that directly outlaws the use of such animals for entertainment, Ryu said.

He said he decided to include circuses because he finds the treatment of animals as objects of entertainment to be “unconscionable.”

The motion appears to already have the initial support of at least half of the sitting members of the City Council, with six of Ryu’s colleagues signing on to have the proposed ban drafted by the city attorney. The council has 15 members, but one seat is vacant.

The proposed ordinance would force Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which usually books space at Staples Center, out of city limits, according to the company’s spokesman, Stephen Payne.

Payne said animal acts such as those that feature tigers are their main draw, and described Ryu’s motion as “yet another unnecessary anti-circus piece of legislation put forward by the L.A. City Council.”

Payne accused the council members of acting out of ignorance, and contends the motion is “driven by animal rights groups, and not people who care for exotic animals.”

He said council members, with the exception of one, have not visited with the circus’ animal trainers and appear to show little interest in how they care for their animals.

“We have men and women who have been doing that for years and put the tigers’ need above their own,” he said.

“This just seems like a backdoor attempt to ban the circus in the city,” he added. “It has nothing to do with the animal care that we provide.”

He also said that the circus does not dress its exotic animals in human clothing nor train them to balance on balls, and that these ideas are “based on archaic notions or incorrect notions of what other people say we do versus what we actually do.”

The motion drew praise from animal rights quarters, including from the Performing Animal Welfare Society and the Humane Society of the United States.

Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle said that circus animals usually endure “lives of unending transport and dislocation, deprivation, and long- term confinement,” while “trainers typically inflict punishment and pain to induce certain behaviors for performances.”

Los Angeles banned the use of bullhooks as training tools on elephants, which prompted Ringling Bros. to phase out elephants from its traveling show, and now the proposed ban “can raise the bar even higher.”

“We commend Council member David Ryu for introducing this important motion to ban all wild animal acts and renew the city’s long and proud history of protecting all animals,” Pacelle said.

–City News Service 

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