The show may not go on: Congress takes on exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses

Elephants dancing in skirts, bears riding tricycles and lions leaping through flaming hoops could become distant memories if a bill U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is co-sponsoring gains traction in Washington.

The Boulder-based congressman and 12 other representatives are pushing legislation that would effectively end the use — and documented abuse — of exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses.

“Congressman Polis is a strong supporter of animal rights and is concerned about the treatment of animals in circuses,” Polis spokesman Chris Fitzgerald told the Colorado Independent.

H.R. 3359 would amend the Animal Welfare Act to restrict the use of exotic and non-domesticated animals in traveling circuses and exhibitions. The Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act, as it is known, specifically aims to outlaw all exotic and wild animals from performing if, within 15 days of a show, they had been traveling in mobile shelters. Rodeos would be exempt under the law, as would “outreach programs for educational or conservation purposes by an accredited zoo or aquarium, if the animal used for such purposes is not kept in a mobile housing facility for more than 12 hours a day.” It would not apply to film, television, or advertising so long as there is not a live public display.

Incorporating wild animals into circus acts has long been controversial. Whips, bull hooks, electric prods, food deprivation and other forms of physical abuse are among the tools and techniques trainers employ to coerce creatures into performing unnatural tricks under the Big Top. Severe confinement and lack of free exercise during animal captivity and transport have led to devastating behavioral, health and psychological consequences. A recent yearlong Mother Jones investigation revealed 8,000-pound elephants spent much of their lives in chains and on cramped trains while under circus care. The magazine article took particular issue with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is charged with overseeing the circuses but up until recently has done little enforcement. Following the Mother Jones probe, the USDA charged circus operator Feld Entertainment $270,000 for violations — the largest fine in the Animal Welfare Act’s history.

“Based upon publicly available research, including video and photographic evidence, it is clear that traveling circuses cannot provide the proper living conditions for exotic animals,” Rep. James Moran, D-Va., said when he introduced H.R. 3359 last month. “This legislation is intended to target the most egregious situations involving exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses.”

The proposed bill additionally contends that “animals in traveling circuses pose an additional risk to public safety because such animals have wild instincts and needs and have demonstrated unpredictability; the use of collapsible, temporary facilities in traveling circuses increases the risk of escaping exotic and non-domesticated animals seriously harming workers and the public; [and] traveling circuses bring people dangerously close to exotic and non-domesticated animals by displaying animals in inappropriate, uncontrolled areas … not suited for … such animals.”

Some communities have already taken it upon themselves to prohibit exotic and wild animals from traveling circuses, including Boulder, Colo.; Encinitas, Pasadena and Corona, Calif.; Stamford, Conn.; Hollywood and Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.; Takoma Park, Md.; Provincetown, Quincy, Braintree, Revere and Weymouth, Mass.; Greenburgh, N.Y.; Burlington, Vt.; and Port Townsend and Redmond, Wash. Madison, Wisc., is currently considering a ban.

If the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act were to pass, it would take effect nationwide and circuses would have one year to comply with the new rules spelled out in the bill. The proposal has been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, of which Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., is a member.

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About the Author

Troy Hooper

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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