By Jill Dion
Presented with an ordinance Monday night that would have shut down circuses and other animal events in Milford, the Board of Aldermen modified the legislation to ban only animal handlers and shows that are not properly licensed.
The city was presented with an ordinance that would have banned traveling shows or circuses that include wild or exotic animals, such as monkeys, chimpanzees, bears, and elephants.
Milford resident Lorrie Davies has been pushing for this kind of legislation, primarily in response to circuses held at the Westfield mall. Democratic Alderman Frank Smith heeded her pleas, and has been researching the matter for more than a year. An ordinance he worked on made its way to the Monday night Board of Aldermen’s meeting.
Davies, a passionate animal rights activist, believes the circus can be just as entertaining minus its animal acts.
She, as well as the proposed ordinance, noted Monday night that “training techniques, devices or agents used to make the animals perform are many times abusive, cruel and/or stressful.”
Stressed animals pose a danger to themselves and the people in attendance, the ordinance states.
Circus representatives disagree. Renee Storey, Cole Brothers’ vice president of administration, has said in the past that circus people treat animals well because they love them and work closely with them. The USDA requires that a veterinarian supervisor be in place to oversee a health program for the animals. And while the vet doesn’t travel with the circus, the circus uses veterinarians along the way to make sure the animals receive regular examinations and inoculations, she said.
“By touring with animals, we raise consciousness about endangered species,” Storey said. “We make people care about the elephants and the tigers. There’s nothing like seeing animals up close.”
Storey wasn’t at Monday’s meeting, but several like-minded people were.
Gary Payne, president of the Circus Fans Association of America, spoke passionately about what he sees as rhetoric from animal rights groups in the face of humane treatment of animals at circuses and other events.
“The proposed ordinance would do little more than bring these animals closer to extinction,” Payne argued. “As written, it would end an American institution.
“The accusations are outrageous, and they are simply not true,” he said, adding that circus animals are loved and well cared for.
The Commerfords, of R.W. Commerford in Goshen, own animals and operate a traveling zoo. They have been targeted by groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), accused of misusing animals, but they attended Monday’s Board of Aldermen’s meeting to argue that people who work with animals do so because the animals are part of their lives.
When traveling with the animals, “I know when the elephant is out of hay or wants a drink of water,” Tim Commerford said. “It’s not the dollar; this is what we do.”
Commerford said there is a lot of misconception about the treatment of animals. For example, he said, elephants often have dark bags under their eyes not because they are tired but because their handlers put Vaseline on them to keep the area from drying out.
He said the USDA is a strict regulating agency that oversees the treatment of show animals.
Resident George Beecher said he loves animals and has spent a lifetime visiting zoos, circuses and animal shows.
“The thought of generations to come not having this privilege makes me very, very sad,” he said.
While the ordinance initially sought to ban all traveling shows or circuses that include wild or exotic animals in Milford, the aldermen voted to modify that. The ordinance bans wild or exotic animal shows that have not received the proper permission from the city’s Planning and Zoning Department to be in Milford, and that do not have the proper USDA license in the name of the person applying for the permit.
The ordinance reads as follows:
“It shall be unlawful for any persons, company or organization to conduct, sponsor, or operate a traveling show or circus that includes wild or exotic animals on any public or private land within the City of Milford without presentation to the Planning & Zoning Office of a current and valid USDA (APHIS ‘Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’), license thereby certifying compliance with the ‘Animal Welfare Act’ (AWA), no sooner than thirty (30) days prior to exhibition. Such license must be in the name of the actual applicant requesting all other zoning and health inspection permits from the city.
“The provisions of this section shall not apply to nonprofit aquaria or zoos, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), bringing animals into schools, libraries, or other educational institutions for the purpose of educational demonstrations, or to any licensed veterinarian for the purpose of treatment and care of such animal.”
Alderman Smith said the ordinance simply means exhibitors “have to show their bona fides” and puts the responsibility on the USDA.
Davies said she was pleased the ordinance was approved, even though it wasn’t as strong as she’d have liked.
“I think it’s a start,” she said.
According to the website Onegreenplanet.org, the new ordinance would impact the Cole Brothers Circus, which has been bringing its show to the Westfield mall once a year.
“Due to the nature of the Cole Brothers Circus, where they lease USDA certified animals from others, the new ordinance will prevent their return without proper licenses and only for animals they are actual guardians of,” the website states.
Cole Brothers had not been reached for additional comment before press time.
On its website, Onegreenplanet.org said the city “came just short of passing a historic ordinance to prohibit circuses that include wild or exotic animals from private and public lands in the city.”