An act of cruelty?

Divided City Council moves to ban circuses

In the past, kids used to dream of running away to perform in the circus, carnival life always seeming free-spirited. But kids may not get a chance to even see the circus if animal rights groups have their way and get Jersey City to ban local circuses.

The ban would be based on the fact that traditional circuses may engage in cruel training practices to get animals to perform and that animals, traveling from place to place, often live their lives in unhealthy conditions such as cages that are too small, inappropriate, or overcrowded.

In an effort to have Jersey City become a more animal-friendly city, a divided City Council on Aug. 17 introduced  of an ordinance that would ban circuses and other acts, tradeshows, or petty zoos that would require animals to perform or be ridden.

It will be up for a final vote at a future meeting.

Councilman Frank Gajewski abstained and Council members Richard Boggiano and Joyce Watterman voted against introducing it. Council member Candice Osborne voted to introduce it, but had raised some concerns about the ordinance.

“It didn’t cover domesticated or livestock, which was my biggest concern,” she said.  “In theory [circuses] should be properly regulated, but it isn’t like we have elephants coming to Jersey City.”

Circuses in Jersey City have been rare in recent times. Councilwoman Diane Coleman said she couldn’t recall seeing one here. Councilman Michael Yun, who along with Councilman Richard Boggiano voted against the ban, said there hasn’t been a circus here in more than 20 years.

Activists want it

Prompted by several animal rights groups who presented their case before the Aug. 15 City Council caucus, the ordinance would have Jersey City join as number of municipalities across the nation that would put a halt of animal performances that usually involve cruel treatment of animals.

Members of the League of Green Voters argued for the ban, claiming that state law provides the city with the tools to curb such abuses.

Laurie Pearl, a professor at Staten Island University, presented evidence about circus practices as part of a study she conducted.

“I did extensive research on the plight of circus animals,” she said, noting that traveling circuses by their nature create a hardship on animals, creating conditions that are contrary to the natural environment in which these animals normally exist.

“Suffering is inevitable,” she said. “In traveling, they have to be confined, and they are often confined 18 to 19 hours per day. They are last to be let out when setting up the circus, and the first to be put back into cages when their act is done.”

Many of the cages are too small. With large cats, the cages often little larger than the cats themselves.

Elephants, she said, are often chained by one or two legs, when in the wild they are used to walking up to five miles per day.

“Many circus animals show an increased heart rate, depression, and show signs that they are going crazy,” she said.

Elephants are often trained using bull hooks, stun guns, metal bars, food deprivation, water deprivation, electric prods, and other intimidation.

“Big cats are jabbed, whipped, or hit,” she said. “They are often crammed into small cages.”

Herding animals such as monkeys are sometimes forced to live alone, while animals that are prey are put into cages with predatory animals, increasing danger and agitation.

“Keeping wild animals confined under duress, especially in close proximity to the public and in lightweight temporary enclosures, this has proven to be dangerous,” she said.

Pearl argued that some circus animals also pose a health risk to humans, noting that a sizeable proportion of circus animals are infected with tuberculosis.

In arguing for the ban, Pearl said local oversight of circuses often cost money, and local animal control officers do not have training or time to deal with exotic animals.

“This ban would free them up to do with what they do best, control of local animal populations,” she said.

If adopted in September, the Jersey City ordinance would join local municipalities in Washington State, New York, California and elsewhere with similar bans. Bergen County recently established a ban on circuses in county parks.

Pearl also pointed to a recent article in the New York Times about Ringling Brothers – the largest circus provider in the United States – phasing out elephant acts.

Not all the facts are right

But Ringling Brothers, in a statement issued after the news hit the press, disputed many of the claims made against circuses, calling many of them inaccurate and designed to garner support for the groups’ agenda.

Many of the claims made by activists are not made on empirical evidence or firsthand knowledge of how circuses actually care for their animals.

The larger circuses such as Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circuses employ animal care professionals, veterinary technicians, and highly trained veterinary staffs.

The statement said Ringling Bros. elephant handlers do use a husbandry tool called a bullhook, sometimes referred to as a guide or an ankus, but that despite its name, it is a humane and appropriate took when working with larger animals, a method approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Humane Association, and the Elephant Managers Association, groups whose members actually work with elephants.

Animal conditions are routinely inspected by federal, state, and local animal welfare officials, and the statement from the circus provider, conditions generally meet or exceed every regulation for animal care.

No circus in Jersey City in decades

Councilman Daniel Rivera questioned some of the presentation, noting that the activists were using very old pictures garnered from internet and not pictures they have taken themselves.

Pearl said it was hard to take pictures on site on threat of being arrested.

“But I’ve seen the conditions,” she said.

Stacy Flanagan, director of the city’s Health Department, said the ban would not affect domestic animals owned as pets, only public performances in which animals are put on display.

The city has the ability to deny a circus a license to hold a public event, which must be issued through the Cultural Affairs Department.

“I grew up in Jersey City, when you hear the rumble circus, look forward to see to seeing something you don’t normally see in Jersey City,” said Rivera. “If we say yes to this, we will never see a circus again.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at


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