Los Angeles Weighs Law Banning Elephant Shows
By Ian Lovett
Ringling Brothers elephants in Los Angeles last year. Critics object to the animals' treatment.
LOS ANGELES — The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus train has been bringing four-ton Asian elephants to this city since 1919.
But “The Greatest Show on Earth” might have made its last stop here.
Los Angeles is poised to ban elephants from performing in circuses within its city limits, after pressure from animal welfare advocates who have for decades condemned the methods used to train and transport elephants as abusive and cruel.
If the City Council adopts the ban early next year, Ringling Brothers, the oldest continuously operated circus in the country, will be barred from the nation’s second-largest city unless its owners agree to abandon one of the show’s signature acts.
“The treatment of elephants in traveling circuses is one of the crueler practices, and it’s time for us to stand up for them,” said Paul Koretz, the City Council member who sponsored the ban. He predicted that once Los Angeles outlawed circus elephants, other communities would follow. “At some point, this will be universally banned throughout the country,” he said.
The movement to ban elephant acts, which had until recently made little progress in this country, may now have found a foothold in Southern California, a region that has emerged as a hub of animal welfare legislation of all kinds. (It is illegal for pet owners to declaw their cats in this city, while in neighboring West Hollywood, the city government went so far as to officially deem pets “companion animals” and their owners “guardians.”)
Six Southern California cities already ban circus elephants, more than in any other state, according to animal welfare organizations. In addition, over the last year, the Santa Ana Zoo and the Orange County Fair both stopped offering elephant rides.
Ringling Brothers has fought back, arguing that its treatment of elephants, tigers and other animals is humane, and pointing to frequent inspections by the Department of Agriculture as proof that the animals are receiving exemplary care.
But the fight over whether elephants should be allowed to perform in traveling shows is only partly about how they are treated: an endangered species, Asian elephants are part of a broader debate over how, and whether, humans should interact with wild animals.
Trainers argue that letting people interact with elephants makes them more likely to support conservation efforts.
“Seeing animals up close is one of the main reasons people come to Ringling Brothers,” said Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, which bought Ringling Brothers in 1967. “Animal rights organizations want no human-animal interaction, period, regardless of how the animals are cared for.”
Elephants had been trained to work with humans for thousands of years before they became fixtures in circuses and roaming carnivals (just ask Hannibal). Intelligent and normally docile, they can learn tricks like headstands for wide-eyed children.
But pressure on circuses to drop wild animal acts has grown steadily, as activists have waged a campaign to convince the public that it is cruel to haul animals back and forth across the country to perform in front of crowds.
Animal rights organizations have criticized the conditions in which the animals are kept, offering what they say is evidence of mistreatment, including undercover videos of handlers hitting elephants over the head with bull hooks, rods with a curved, sharp end long used to train and control elephants.
Some organizations, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, want to remove animals not only from circuses but also from zoos, even though those animals are not made to travel in boxcars or perform tricks.
“For the circuses, profit is always the priority,” said Lindsay Rajt, a spokeswoman for PETA. “Any time animals are used for profit, you’re going to see corners cut on their welfare, because it’s not the top priority.”
Even people who are not actively involved in animal rights have grown more receptive to this argument.
Rebecca Goldstein, a Los Angeles resident, said it would be a shame if she could not take children of her own to see a circus with live animals, like the one she went to when she was young.
“But if the way they’re treating animals is inhumane,” Ms. Goldstein, 29, said, “I’ll take them to see people instead.”
More than a dozen countries have banned at least some wild animals from performing in public. Several major American circuses have voluntarily eliminated animals from their shows, instead focusing on human acrobatics, while zoos, including the Los Angeles Zoo, have moved away from use of the bull hook.
But the pull to see elephants up close has proved a difficult force to overcome. Lawsuits designed to force Ringling Brothers to abandon elephant acts have been dismissed. Only a scattering of relatively small cities have adopted bans of their own.
About 10 million people nationwide came to see Ringling Brothers circuses in 2012, according to Feld Entertainment, including 100,000 in Los Angeles.
Despite the continued popularity of elephant acts, though, some elephant trainers fear that their work may soon be outlawed.
Kari Johnson, a co-owner of Have Trunk Will Travel, a company that trains and rents elephants for shows, including Hollywood movies, said the end of elephant rides in Orange County had hurt her business. A ban in Los Angeles could be ruinous.
“I believe if something drastic doesn’t happen, then we will be the last generation that trains elephants,” said Ms. Johnson, whose stepfather was also an elephant trainer. “People love elephants because they get to be around them a little.”