Will Ringling’s closure clear the way for federal circus legislation?

Delcianna J. Winders, Academic Fellow, Animal Law & Policy Program, Harvard Law School

The piece originally appeared in The Hill

With Ringling Bros.—the most active and spendthrift opponent of legislation to protect circus animals—shuttering, it may finally be possible for bipartisan public safety and animal welfare efforts to succeed.

Introduced by Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Ryan Costello (R-Pa.),  the Traveling Exotic Animal & Public Safety Protection Act, H.R. 6342, would ban traveling wild animal acts given their risks to humans and animals alike. While political debates rage, this simple, important measure—one that countries across the world have already taken—should be a no-brainer.

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The recent incident in which long-time Ringling Bros. exhibitor Vicenta Pages was attacked by a tiger in front of dozens of children is just the most recent reminder of the dangers inherent in these acts. Captive big cats kill about one person every year in America, and injure many more. While Ringling—whose tigers have been involved in numerous maulings—is closing down, other circuses will continue to endanger the public as long as they’re allowed to. Tigers have repeatedly escaped from UniverSoul Circus and at least two people have lost parts of their fingers to big cats with this circus. A Shrine circus attendee came face to face with a tiger in the restroom. At another Shrine circus, a tiger killed a circus handler in front of 200 children. Numerous folks have been rushed to the hospital after encounters with tigers at Shrine circus shows. Yet government records show that exhibitors with UniverSoul, Shrine, and other circuses still fail to adequately contain dangerous animals.

It’s time we acknowledge that carting apex predators around the country in flimsy cages and putting them into direct contact with humans is a bad idea.

But it’s not just the carnivores who endanger us. Elephants can easily snuff out a human life with a single trunk swipe or foot stomp and kill about as many Americans as big cats do. An elephant at a Shrine circus elephant kicked a handler, throwing him about 20 feet and killing him. At least 15 children and one adult were injured when an elephant giving rides at a Shrine circus became startled. One circus exhibitor recently paid a paltry penalty after allowing elephants to repeatedly endanger the public, including an incident in which the elephants escaped from a Shrine circus and ran amok for nearly an hour.

Elephants can also carry tuberculosis, which highly transmissible to humans—even without direct contact, since it’s airborne. Seven people were recently diagnosed with the disease after being around infected elephants at a zoo, and eight individuals contracted TB from a former circus elephant. Yet elephants with the disease are still routinely exposed to the public. Indeed, virtually every American circus with elephants has a history of tuberculosis. UniverSoul is currently touring with tuberculosis-exposed elephants. In 2014, New York City officials required UniverSoul to keep elephants out of its acts after the circus failed to provide current TB tests. Dallas officials recently prohibited elephants with UniverSoul from performing because they had “tested reactive for tuberculosis,” and Michigan’s assistant state veterinarian cautioned that these elephants should not be on the road because of their TB status. Yet UniverSoul continues to bring these same animals to other states with laxer laws. Shrine and other circuses also routinely feature elephants who carry tuberculosis.

The risks posed by these inherently dangerous animals are only heightened by the abuse and deprivation they endure. Elephants in the wild roam up to 30 miles a day; in circuses, they spend many consecutive hours and even days tightly chained, slowly going out of their minds. Big cats who have home ranges of up to 400 miles are routinely caged in tiny transport containers 24 hours a day.

Deprived of everything that is natural and important to them, these animals only perform tricks because they’re terrified not to. Numerous undercover investigations and eyewitness reports confirm that circus animals are trained through severe beatings—often while they’re caged or chained. Such abuse can provoke aggression, feeding an endless cycle.

While countries around the world have banned these cruel and dangerous acts, America lags woefully behind. In a time of immense divisiveness, surely we can at least agree that no animal deserves to suffer endless abuse and confinement—and that it’s foolhardy to continue to endanger human health and safety for a few fleeting moments of outmoded entertainment.

USDA facilitates animal suffering at Cricket Hollow Zoo

Delcianna J. Winders, Academic Fellow, Animal Law & Policy Program, Harvard Law School

This piece originally appeared in the Des Moines Register

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has again renewed the license that chronic animal welfare violator Cricket Hollow Zoo, in Manchester, needs to operate. The agency renewed this license despite recently documenting numerous violations and, indeed, documenting nearly 100 violations over the past three years. The agency renewed this license just months after a judge held that Cricket Hollow was likely to cause serious death or injury to animals. The agency renewed this license despite a pending enforcement action. The agency is complicit in Cricket Hollow’s abuse and neglect of dozens of animals.

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©Tracey Kuehl

To understand the conditions at Cricket Hollow that the Department of Agriculture allows to continue by its re-licensing, consider the following violations, documented by the agency on one day:

  • Various species were held with no ventilation and “a strong, foul odor of fecal waste and ammonia”;
  • No plan existed to address the distress of a baboon who paced incessantly and “repeatedly tossed his head back,” both “abnormal behaviors” indicative of distress;
  • Multiple animal enclosures “were severely muddy with large areas of standing water,” forcing numerous to stand in water and/or thick mud, some of whom had “mud/wet fur extending up the entire length of their legs”;
  • Numerous animals were confined with excessive flies and built-up waste.

Automatic license renewals also endanger humans. Without licenses, facilities couldn’t exhibit animals, and many of the violations put the public at risk. Cricket Hollow has repeatedly been cited for violations related to public endangerment, including holding dangerous animals like lions, bears and baboons in structurally unsound cages that could allow escape. One of Cricket Hollow’s owners was flown to a hospital after being attacked by a tiger and suffering lacerations to his head and torso.

Years ago, the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General flagged automatic license renewal as a serious problem causing increased animal suffering and undermining the Animal Welfare Act’s purposes. In response to the Inspector General’s plea that it reform its licensing practices, the agency claimed that it was legally required to automatically renew licenses.

Developments in the law leave no question that the Department of Agriculture is not required to automatically renew licenses, and that it can condition renewal on compliance. Numerous federal courts have held that the Animal Welfare Act can be read to require compliance with the law before renewal.

Still, the agency clings to an outmoded model of licensing. While many agencies have adopted efficient, informal procedures for licensing, the Department of Agriculture continues to give full, trial-type hearings for every licensing and other Animal Welfare Act decision. This slow, antiquated approach wastes resources and results in serious delays that prolong animal suffering.

In August the Animal Welfare Act will turn 50, and it’s past time for the agency to heed calls to stop facilitating violations of the law and animal suffering through automatic license renewal.

Will new tiger protections go far enough?

Delcianna J. Winders, Academic Fellow, Animal Law & Policy Program, Harvard Law School

[This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.]

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With more tigers in American backyards, basements and bathrooms than the wild, it’s worth pausing on Endangered Species Day to consider whether new federal protections for tigers are enough.

On May 6, just days after a tiger that had apparently been used for photo-ops in Florida was found roaming the streets of Conroe following last month’s floods, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed a loophole in its Endangered Species Act regulations. After nearly two decades of looking the other way while hundreds of captive tigers are trafficked in the United States every year, the agency began treating tigers the same as other endangered wildlife.

But the agency’s permitting policies may critically limit the impact of this change.

To protect imperiled species like tigers, the Endangered Species Act prohibits a host of activities, including importing, exporting, selling, killing, harming, harassing and wounding protected wildlife, whether captive or wild. Continue reading

Cecil and Obie: Owning animals, dead or alive

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Photo from Care2 petitions – click image

Kathleen Stachowski     Other Nations

Cecil the lion is dead, long live Cecil. Obie the tiger lives–and dies–in successive purgatories for 45 years running.

Cecil, a unique individual and beloved personality, was slain by a small and hollow man for no reason other than ego. This one “special” lion’s death triggered a tipping point and unleashed worldwide condemnation.

And then there’s Obie, one beloved football mascot who has required a veritable breeding mill to produce the 45 individuals who’ve served as namesake. Make no mistake–it’s the mascot who’s beloved, not the unique tiger cub plugged into the role annually. Old Obies live and die in obscurity as wild captives no longer cubbishly cute, as now-dangerous adults consigned to–well, who knows? Who cares?   Continue reading

Shrine Circus 2015: ‘Turn and stand’ for animals

DSCN1227Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

“F—ing dopers!” This invective was snarled in our direction as we stood outside the Adams Center on the University of Montana campus in Missoula one recent April weekend. Inside the Adams Center, the Shrine Circus (produced by the Jordan World Circus) was putting enslaved animals through their miserable paces at the business ends of whips and bullhooks.

“F—ing dopers”? We clutched signs reading “Have a heart for circus animals”; “Cruelty isn’t entertainment: Have compassion”; “Circuses: No fun 4 animals,” and the like. Our assemblage of 22 activists–people who set aside chores and pleasures to show up 53 times over two days and five performances–ranged from a six-year-old to several retirees, some sporting lustrous, silver hair; one was retired from a career in finance, another from federal service. We included a former teacher and a current teacher, an equine rescue volunteer, students, an archeologist, an insurance claims examiner, an adult education specialist, and a case worker in geriatrics. “F—ing dopers”? Really? Continue reading

Two animal rescues: 33 happy homecomings & one heartbreaker

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Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations

Anyone who works in the animal rights arena knows that a single day–nay, a single minute–can feature the most jubilant high and the utmost despairing low. One emotion follows on the heels of the other as news randomly enters your world: humans at their most compassionate and generous best–vigorously turning the wheels of justice for animals; humans at their most uncaring and depraved worst–deliberately evil monsters or indifferent agents of neglect, suffering, and death. How on earth to reconcile this?  Continue reading

Ringling Bros. Retires Circus Elephants

Seth Victor

As many of you may have already heard, Ringling Bros. is retiring elephants from its act and focusing on caring for elephants in a conservation center. Wayne Pacelles of HSUS described this move as a “Berlin Wall moment for animal protection,” and attributed the change to the evolving public opinion surrounding animal welfare, including the outcry that came on the heels of Blackfish and the treatment of orcas at Sea World. The termination of elephant performances has been long-sought by PETA.Photography-Elephant-Wallpapers

The media reaction, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a bit divided regarding Ringling Bros’s decision. An op-ed in the New York Post believes that the circus’s “craven capitulation to PETA will only embolden zealots to agitate for elimination of all circus animals — if not eventually to bestow upon all living creatures the same “inalienable rights” as humans,” and goes on to state that without exposure to animals via a circus, most people will not form a connection with the animals, and will thus not care to save them in the wild. The L.A. Times also notes that many people feel the elephants are an iconic part of the joy of the circus. Meanwhile op-eds in the New York Times range from echoing the Post to refuting the sentiments of the circus sympathizers. Continue reading