PITTSFIELD — Following a marathon debate and an equally expansive communitywide discussion, the City Council has approved a ban on circus acts involving non-domesticated animals.
The council voted 8-3 to adopt a proposal that was submitted by animal advocates, which bans animal displays for entertainment purposes but allows exceptions for purely educational purposes, such as during a museum program.
That vote followed a parade of more than two dozen speakers during the citizen comment portion of the council meeting on Tuesday, which included other issues but was dominated by those for and against the ban.
Also on Tuesday, councilors unanimously approved a November ballot referendum on whether Pittsfield should adopt the Community Preservation Act. That would allow a proposed 1 percent surcharge on most property tax bills but also allow the city to access grants from a state fund derived from real estate transaction fees.
When councilors finally began their own debate on the circus animals issue — after about 90 minutes of public comment — strong support for the ordinance ban quickly emerged.
Councilors Kathleen Amuso, Melissa Mazzeo, Nicholas Caccamo, John Krol, Peter White, Anthony Simonelli and Lisa Tully said they would vote for the ban, most saying they had received more emails or calls on the issue than for any in recent memory, and that the supporters represented the "overwhelming" majority.
Those councilors, along with council President Peter Marchetti, voted to implement the ban, while councilors Christopher Connell, Donna Todd Rivers and Kevin Morandi voted against.
Connell proposed an amendment to the ordinance that would allow circus shows but also require city inspectors to check on the condition of the animals and have the ability to "shut down" shows if the animals appeared abused or poorly cared for. The amendment was defeated, leading to the final vote to approve the new ordinance.
Speakers against the initiative included people associated with the annual Dalton Lions Club-sponsored circuses, an official with the Circus Fans Association of America and people with experience working in circuses or working with or training animals.
Those favoring the ban included the citizen group Berkshire Voters for Animals, which had submitted a petition and proposed ordinance to the council — and Laura Hagen, deputy director of advocacy with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Those arguing in favor cited what they said was evidence of abuse of circus animals and the general condition of wild animals living and traveling with a circus, being forced to perform tricks and facing conditions unlike what they would experience in the wild.
Those in opposition contended that reports of abuse of animals weren't accurate or were exaggerated by animals rights advocates. They said circus animals provided an important educational component for people unlikely to ever see an elephant or jungle cat, were beloved by children who attended circuses and gave the public a physical focal point in understanding why wild animals should be protected from further human encroachment on their lands.
Hagen said there is significant evidence of harsh circus animal treatment recorded in complaints investigated by federal inspectors, adding that there are far fewer inspectors nationally than needed to provide adequate monitoring of the circus industry.
Against the ban
Dan McGinnis, a member of the Dalton Lions, said he has never seen evidence of mistreatment of animals at circuses brought to the town as a fundraising project by the club.
Another speaker pointed out that a ban also was proposed in Dalton, by some of the same advocates, but the idea was defeated by a 2 to 1 margin at the annual town meeting.
However, proponents of the ban, displaying a "bull hook" pole used to control elephants, which is shaped like a short golf putter with a curved head, argued that the animals "aren't doing tricks because they want to," only because they are compelled.
Terry Carlow said the animals travel in hot rail cars between shows, are generally closely confined, and their treatment is not well monitored by the few federal inspectors.
She also argued that the circus has become a "broken business model" that is going out of fashion and is already in decline.
Among councilors, Krol and Caccamo said that, even if Pittsfield inspectors monitored the animals while here, their general condition in captivity and the travel between shows was problematic for them.
White said he would rather see wild animals at a nature preserve, where the public could view them but where they would also experience a more natural habitat and less stress.
Connell said he proposed the amendment because he has seen the benefit of circuses as having a powerful attraction for young children, who are awed by the experience.
Rivers concurred and added that she believes "in the free market," and that if the circus is becoming a "broken business model," it will go out of business on its own.
She also said she couldn't support the way the ordinance was written because it was unclear, partly concerning exemptions for educational programs.
Morandi said he would support Connell's amendment but would vote against the ban without it, saying it would be "taking away the joy of children.
He and Rivers also questioned whether city residents actually were overwhelmingly in favor of a ban, as proponents contended. Rivers cited an online reader poll on The Berkshire Eagle website that found much more opposition than support for the ban.
The council on Tuesday also approved placing adoption of the state Community Preservation Act on the November ballot. The surcharge was proposed in a petition to the council as a 1 percent increase on property tax bills, with the first $100,000 of assessed property value discounted and other exemptions for low-income residents, seniors and veterans owning homes.
Communities that adopt the act receive funding from the state that is derived from a tax on Registry of Deeds fees that city residents currently pay along with other state residents. The funding would be earmarked toward preservation projects recommended by a committee.
Pittsfield would join Williamstown, Lenox, Stockbridge and Great Barrington as the only other Berkshire communities among the 161 statewide to add the state-sponsored municipal revenue source.
City voters rejected a CPA proposal in 2006.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.