Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act
Circuses were once considered a part of American life and traditions, as human performers and exotic animals traveled from city to city to dazzle audiences with feats of strength, bravery, and daring amid an atmosphere of excitement. That tradition could be disappearing, and with it the cultural exchange of having international performers visit small towns. Those PB-1 visa holders are members of recognized entertainment groups and whose entry in to the country may be expedited by the Trusted Traveler Program.
Some lawmakers seek to limit circuses and similar performances from using non-native and wild animals in their acts, saying that such displays only showcase unethical animal cruelty. A federal bill was introduced in 2017 by Sen. Raul Grijalva (Democrat of Arizona) that would outlaw such animal acts. It was co-sponsored by 44 fellow House members, mostly democrats. Called the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act, it would expand the Animal Welfare Act to severely restrict and prohibit transporting exotic species for the purpose of shows.
The bill was not acted upon during the 115th Congress, so it has expired without becoming law. It may be reintroduced in a future session.
The sponsors of the bill believed that it would appeal to both animal rights activists who had protested traveling circuses for many years and legislators interested in cost-cutting measures and a smaller government footprint. The latter objective could be achieved, they believe, by eliminating the required safety and welfare inspections that agents of the Agriculture Department are required to perform. Sanctions against circuses and other exotic animal acts believed to be using unethical and inhumane practices like electronic prods and whips can be expensive and difficult to enforce due to the itinerant nature of the shows, the bill’s sponsors said in supporting statements.
Circuses in the crosshairs
An opponent of the measure pointed out that the proposed legislation was driven not as much by economics than by animal welfare organizations that targeted circuses because the bill excepted many forms of traveling animal productions, including zoos, aquariums, rodeos, and television or movie making enterprises. The proposed legislation was supported by many animal rights organizations, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which lobbied and demonstrated to close down circuses for many years.
The legislation also landed after the country’s best-known traveling circus, Ringling Bros., announced its last show in January 2017, after 146 years on the road. The Sarasota, Florida-based circus had announced the retirement of their elephant acts in 2016 and admitted that ticket sales plummeted as a result, forcing the closure of the entire spectacle. The Ringling circus had long been pressured by animal rights activists to drop their elephant and lion acts because, they said, performances were forced by inhumane practices including withholding food and water, chaining animals, and using painful mechanical prods.
Another traveling troupe, the Big Apple Circus, which uses dogs and ponies in its shows, might not be affected by the legislation but had its own financial obstacles and announced its closure – at least temporarily – at the same time as Ringling, suggesting that such performing acts had run their course and can’t compete with modern entertainment options.
The Kelly Miller Circus, which normally includes exotic animal acts, announced on its website that it continues to tour, but without its animal acts for the time being.
State laws on animal ownership
The best word to describe state laws on ownership of exotic or wild animals is “patchwork.” Until the introduction of the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act in 2017, there was no federal legislation limiting the ownership of such animals. Federal law did, through the Department of Agriculture, regulate the transportation of animals used in circuses. The Fish and Wildlife Service, a part of the Interior Department, regulates trade of many endangered and exotic species. The Lacey Act prohibits the trade or importation of dangerous wild animals that could not only harm humans but agriculture or the environment as well, such as raccoon dogs and brown tree snakes.
The majority of states have some laws protecting exotic animals but few address issues like circus animals that are shipped across jurisdictions to perform. New Jersey passed a law in 2018 that prohibits exotic and wild animal acts within state limits, the first in the country. New York City enacted a similar law in 2018.
Many states have no laws limiting or restricting ownership of exotic or wild animals. This situation has resulted in several headline-grabbing incidents in recent years, such as a woman in Connecticut whose face was torn off by a friend’s pet chimpanzee, a man from Nebraska who was strangled by a pet snake, and a girl who was mauled by her aunt’s pet tiger.
In 1992 a circus elephant had several people on its back before a show in Palm City, Florida, when it suddenly went on a rampage. The elephant stormed out of the tent, throwing at least one man out of its way when he tried to stop the animal. Police officers shot the elephant to death in order to stop it.
In 2003, Las Vegas-based lion tamers Siegfried and Roy had a traumatic event during a show when a lion clamped its jaws on Roy’s neck. The trainer was rushed to a trauma hospital and survived, but the act closed shortly thereafter.
In 2018 a Las Vegas man was arrested for mistreating tiger cubs and forced to surrender his animals. According to a television news report, the man often sold tickets on the Las Vegas Strip, then took paying customers to a secret location to interact with the cats. After a police raid a veterinarian found that the animals were sick, which compounded the man’s penalties. Nevada is noted as one of the few states with specific prohibitions on animal ownership that includes things like alligators and but allows residents to keep bears, large cats, and even elephants.
Ohio’s laws changed only when a man who had amassed an entire zoo of wild and exotic animals let them all loose on the day he committed suicide. Police in the town of Zanesville had to shoot tigers, bears, and other potentially dangerous animals in neighborhoods and on streets to protect the public. As a result the state began requiring pet owners to register exotic breeds, establish veterinary care, and microchip the animals for identification.