By Jason Cato - The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Circus owners to fight proposal to ban wild animal entertainment in Pittsburgh

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PITTSBURGH — More than 60,000 people attended circus shows in Pittsburgh last year, said organizers who plan a three-ring opposition to a proposed city ban on wild and exotic animals used for amusement.

“Any statement to the contrary that this measure isn’t designed to stop the circus is absurd,” said Stephen Payne, vice president for Feld Entertainment, the Florida-based parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. “That is exactly what it is designed to do.”

A day after City Council President Bruce Kraus introduced legislation to ban wild and exotic animals for public entertainment or amusement, Payne and the longtime organizer of the Syria Shrine Circus said they plan to mount a formidable defense of their shows and an all-out effort to stop the proposed ordinance.

”Pittsburgh has always been a great circus town,” said Paul Leavy, 53, of Murrysville, who has served as chairman of the Pittsburgh Shrine Circus since 1993 and volunteered at the annual fundraising event since he was 13. “It’s inexpensive family entertainment.”

Kraus said his proposal is buoyed by recent developments in the animal entertainment industry. Ringling Bros.’ last weekend held its final circuses featuring elephants, and SeaWorld announced in March that it will stop breeding killer whales and phase out orca shows at its properties.

“There’s been a shift in the culture and perception of how we use animals for entertainment and display,” Kraus said. “I think this is a good time to spark the conversation (in Pittsburgh). Clearly, it’s in the national conversation.”

More than 30 cities and counties around the country already have similar ordinances, according to Animal Defenders International. The Los Angeles-based advocacy group estimates at least 300 circuses operate in the United States that use wild or exotic animals, while fewer than 20 conduct human-only performances.

City Council on Wednesday will discuss but not vote on the proposed ordinance, which was crafted with the help of Humane Action Pittsburgh.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris, an animal advocate, said she opposes the legislation for several reasons.

It would replace an existing ordinance regulating the exhibition of animals but eliminate language that she sponsored in that bill prohibiting the capture and harm of wild birds, Harris said. She noted that Kraus’ bill would prohibit movie companies from using animals for film shoots — an assertion Kraus denied, though he acknowledged the bill as written does not include a direct exemption for the film industry as it does for the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

“I have never seen an animal mistreated in a circus,” said Harris of Spring Hill. “You can’t play politics and say you can do this at the zoo, but you can’t do this at a circus.”

Four other council members and Mayor Bill Peduto declined comment, saying they haven’t been briefed on the legislation.

Kraus said his concern is with animals being purposefully bred, trained, caged and transported for entertainment purposes.

“That just becomes the animal’s life,” he said.

His proposal would ban the use of popular circus animals such as chimpanzees, monkeys, lions, tigers, bears, seals and elephants, as well as 14 other categories of animals, including dolphins, alligators, zebras, kangaroos and armadillos.

At next week’s council meeting, Kraus said he plans to ask for a public hearing on the matter.

Kraus said he isn’t against circuses and isn’t trying to ban them.

“Of course, everyone has wonderful memories of going to the circus. No one is looking to disrupt that,” he said.

The two circus organizers aren’t buying it and said neither would return to Pittsburgh if the ordinance passes.

About 40,000 people attended a series of Ringling Bros. shows in November at Consol Energy Center, the company said. More than 20,000 attended five Shrine Circus shows last month at the Uptown arena, Leavy said.

“Our turnstile count would have to be a vote,” he said. “The animals are our No. 1 requested attraction.”

By Jason Cato

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jason Cato is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or [email protected]. Reporter Bob Bauder contributed.