Pittsfield prepares ban on circus animals; would exempt farm animals and demonstrations

Editor's note: This article was updated on July 28, 2016, to correct the date of the next City Council meeting, which is Tuesday, Aug. 9.

PITTSFIELD — Lion and tiger and elephant acts are a step closer to being banned in Pittsfield.

The City Council will consider an ordinance prohibiting circus wildlife shows and other non-domesticated animal performances within city limits. The council Ordinance and Rules Committee voted 4-0 Tuesday night — with Councilor Nicholas Caccamo absent — to have City Solicitor Richard Dohoney prepare a draft regulation for the entire council to review, possibly at the Aug. 9 meeting.

If approved, the ban would exempt dogs, cats, and other pets, farm animals and animal demonstrations for educational purposes.

Berkshire Voters for Animals spearheaded the petition calling on the 11 councilors to enact a ban as public opposition grows to alleged circus animal abuse and the stunts they are trained to do.

"These animals lead lives not part of their natural habitat," said Rochelle Howe of Pittsfield.

However, local circus fans believe their opponents usually can't prove their abuse accusations.

"Their evidence has never held up in court," said Pittsfield native Dan McGinnis.

McGinnis is a member of the Dalton Lions Club, which annually sponsors a circus visit to Dalton, where town meeting voters have rejected a proposal to ban circus animal acts.

Pittsfield is the latest battle ground — often drawing outside special interest groups — in the national debate over the pros and cons of outlawing circus-type animal shows.

The Zoological Associates of America, Feld Entertainment, producers of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and the Eastern States Exposition — The Big E — in West Springfield, which has hosted elephant shows, all wrote the City Council to oppose the ban.

Backing the opponents are the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Massachusetts division of the U.S. Humane Society, and both had representatives speak before the subcommittee Tuesday night.

Given that Pittsfield hasn't hosted a circus in eight years, Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers asked why the city should put a ban on its regulatory books. Rivers supports the cause, but believes the fight is on a larger stage.

"Seems to me the forum is the federal government ... [a local ban] is not the right solution for this issue," she said.

MSPCA Deputy Director of Advocacy Laura Hagen said the municipal venue is the perfect place to effect change, citing several major cities that have passed similar bans or prohibition of the "bull hook" a sharp cane-like implement circus handlers use to control elephants.

"Taking action on the local level has had a direct impact on those businesses," she said.

Hagen cited how local legislation and public scrutiny contributed to Ringling Bros. in May dropping elephant performances from its shows under the big top.

The hot-button topic of banning circus animal acts has had Councilor at large Peter White's phone ringing off the hook.

"It's the only time I've seen my answering machine flashing 'full,' he said.


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