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Animal-Rights Measure Gains in Surf City

Cruelty: Circuses oppose growing nationwide move to ban certain wild-animal acts.

June 23, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though a circus hasn't rolled through town in years, Huntington Beach is poised to join a growing list of cities that have outlawed the use of wild animals in circus acts and even pony rides.

A grass-roots campaign by animal-rights activists has spurred more than 20 cities nationwide, including Pasadena and San Diego County's Encinitas, to pass similar ordinances in recent months, angering circus officials who believe the laws unfairly single them out.

"We refer to the ordinances as a solution in search of a problem," said Heidi Herriott of the Outdoor Amusement Business Assn. in Florida, which represents traveling circuses and carnivals.

Animal-rights activists say that by limiting the places where animals can be displayed, they can reduce what they see as the inhumane exploitation of the creatures.

The ordinances generally exclude zoos and other facilities sanctioned by the American Zoological Assn., animal shelters and sanctuaries.

They ban circus animals, pony rides and other events.

"It would apply to any display of animals used for entertainment purposes," said Karen Chepeka, an animal-rights activist pushing the measure in Huntington Beach. "There's a huge difference between education and entertainment displays, like having an elephant or lion do tricks--that's not normal behavior for a wild animal."

Citing what they believe is lax enforcement of federal and state standards for treatment of circus animals, activists hope to shift that job to city police officers. Armed with local laws, police would be empowered to protect people from wild animals and wild animals from mistreatment.

Federal regulation "just doesn't protect them enough," said Nicole Paquette, general counsel for the Sacramento-based Animal Protection Institute, which drew up the model ordinance that most local activists are pushing through city councils. "The one [federal] requirement for a cage is that [animals] have to be able to stand up and turn around. It's sad that these animals spend the majority of their time traveling in boxcars."

Circus backers see the ordinances as part of a larger animal-rights campaign.

"Their true agenda is being uncovered," Herriott said. "Their true agenda is no medical research utilizing animals, no fur, no leather."

Ordinance backers acknowledge that they are waging a grass-roots campaign to create zones where animals cannot be used for entertainment, much like the nuclear-free-zone ordinances that were in vogue in the 1970s and '80s.

Circus officials see it as a stealth campaign in which animal-rights activists quietly approach cities and try to get ordinances passed before opposition can mobilize.

"It's clear they're trying to gain momentum, and we think it's important to stop it now," said Catherine Ort-Mabry, spokeswoman for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, based in Vienna, Va.

"It's unnecessary legislation," she said. "It's ideologically driven. The folks pushing this believe animals should be removed from circuses. They're trying to tell people what to eat, what to wear and how to spend their free time."

The potential effect of the ordinances is unclear. Huntington Beach, for example, hasn't hosted a circus in years. Yet circus operators are concerned.

"It's kind of heartbreaking that these animal-rights people are making decisions for families who want to be entertained by circuses with animals," said Alexis Kaiser, booking manager agent for Circus Vargas, the Lucerne Valley, Calif.-based circus that tours Southern and Central California, and has performed in Huntington Beach.

"City officials are listening to these types of people and allowing them to make decisions for their community as a whole," Kaiser said.

Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook said she was impressed with a presentation by local animal-rights activists and agreed to back the ordinance.

"All you have to do is watch their videotape and see how some of these circus animals are treated, and you can't help but support it," said Cook, who voted Monday to have the city attorney review a proposed ordinance.

Peter Green, a council colleague, opposed considering the measure, in part because he said it would add duties to an already overburdened staff that could shrink by 5% in coming months because of budget problems.

"I thought this was frivolous and quite unnecessary," he said. "We should concentrate on the major reasons for a city council to be here: public safety."

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