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Circus animal ordinance stalls in committee

Wednesday, June 3, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

A proposed ordinance aiming to protect circus animals within city limits sparked a passionate debate at a City Council Health and Human Services Committee meeting on Monday, with supporters calling it a major step forward and opponents arguing that it is burdensome and flawed.

The committee ultimately chose to table the proposal until its next meeting on Aug. 3. This would provide Council with a brief time window to pass and enact the ordinance, if it chooses to do so, before circus titans Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey start their season in Austin on Aug. 19.

“I think what (this ordinance is) attempting to do is to stop circus animals from coming to Austin,” said Council Member Ora Houston, who chairs the committee. “I think this needs to be redrafted in a way that we’re clear about what we’re trying to do and whose responsibility it is to do it.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo asked her fellow committee members to forward the ordinance to the full Council without a recommendation so that it could work out some of the legal questions involved and consider passing a potentially amended ordinance ahead of the upcoming circus season. Her request did not appear to have enough committee support to move forward.

The draft ordinance, which the Animal Advisory Commission recommended on April 8 that Council pass, would ban the use of certain devices and practices on circus animals, which it defines as “any animal owned by, transported by, or in the custody of a circus, including but not limited to elephants, big cats, bears, primates, camels, horses, and dogs.”

The ordinance would ban practices such as depriving circus animals of food, water or rest; shocking them with electricity; and using a bullhook, baseball bat, ax handle, or pitchfork on them. The minimum fine for violating the ordinance would be $200.

Animal Advisory Commission Chair David Lundstedt said that the commission first took up the ordinance in June 2013 and explained his own rationale for it. “I think that it’s not unreasonable that animals that are shipped in to entertain us be afforded the same compassion and consideration that we do for our dogs and our cats,” he said.

While opponents agreed with the intent to protect animals from harm and cruelty, many of them argued against the inclusion of the term bullhook, which the ordinance defines as “any instrument or device consisting of a spike, hook, or other pointed section, attached to a shaft or handle made of wood, fiberglass, metal, or other solid or flexible material.”

A bullhook, also known as an elephant goad or ankus, is a common tool that trainers use to train and guide circus elephants.

Trista Adams, representing Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey parent company Feld Entertainment, said the ordinance would “unnecessarily prohibit the use of a widely accepted elephant husbandry tool … and prevent Ringling Bros. and other circuses from being able to perform in Austin for at least the next three years.”

The company, Adams said, plans to retire its touring elephants in 2018 to a sanctuary in Florida.

Larry Tucker, who also sits on the Animal Advisory Commission, called the items listed in the ordinance “cruel devices.”

“To send our children to see elephants being cruelly treated is really a shame,” Tucker said. “I think that we need to really send a message here and say that Austin is not going to tolerate any type of cruelty to animals, whether it’s withholding food and water, whether it’s using a bullhook or beating an animal with a baseball bat.”

Rodeo Austin Chief Executive Officer Bucky Lamb expressed concerns that the ordinance may unintentionally apply to his organization and other rodeos in that it defines a circus as “an organization that exhibits animals for the purpose of entertainment.”

Lamb added that the definition of bullhook could also unintentionally ban the “show stick,” which is a tool used in rodeos to display cattle, and argued against the inclusion of horses and dogs as circus animals.

Lundstedt responded to these concerns. “I can assure you that as a native Austinite, the last organization I want to mess with is Rodeo Austin. Our intent is not to go after any rodeo or 4-H activity at all,” he said. “I think our intent was very clear on elephants and circuses. If the ordinance needs to be tweaked because of that, that’s fine with me.”

Houston asked Law Department staff to brief Council members at a later date on some of the legal issues involved with the ordinance, including language and definitions and how the city would enforce it or work with other entities to enforce it.

Photo by Vinoth Chandar available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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