City councilor proposes banning circuses in Santa Fe

July 5, 2017 GMT

When Debby Everett was 5 years old, her father took her to the circus.

It was an experience Everett says she will never forget, but for all the wrong reasons.

“After the circus, he took me back to see the animals, and I could see that they had whip marks on their backs,” Everett said. “I cried, and he was like, ‘Why are you crying? I took you to the circus.’ I said, ‘Those animals are not happy. They’re being hurt.’”

She said the image haunted her. Everett, now 67, is fighting back.

A district leader with the Humane Society of the United States, Everett is working on a proposal with city Councilor Signe Lindell to prohibit circuses and other traveling animal acts in Santa Fe. But rodeos are exempted from the proposed ordinance that Lindell has introduced. Lindell said her measure targeting animal acts would fail if rodeos were included.

Everett’s focus is on circuses. “No animal wants to jump through a ring of fire unless they’re afraid not to,” she said.

And Lindell said she wants to ban traveling acts with wild or exotic animals as a matter of humanity.

“I do believe it was [Mahatma] Gandhi that said we judge a society by the way its animals are treated,” Lindell said.

“If that’s the case, Santa Fe is in pretty good shape because we do a good job with our animals,” she said. “This is just one more step in making sure that our animals are treated with kindness and given humane conditions.”

Her proposal would prohibit any traveling animal show, petting zoo, circus, animal act or exhibit that includes any wild or exotic animal “unless for exclusively public educational purposes,” according to her draft ordinance.

Lindell said her proposal is also about public safety.

“There have been cases where these animals have escaped, and it’s been very problematic,” said Lindell, who shared a story about an elephant that escaped Friday from a circus in Wisconsin.

Lindell said traveling animal acts offer little or no economic benefit for the city.

“I know a lot of people are under the impression that circuses and such are hooked up with charitable organizations. That’s not true at these point in time,” she said.

“These are just private companies that come through. They don’t really contribute to any economic development for us. They don’t stay in our hotels. They don’t shop at our shops or restaurants. They’re here for a couple of days and gone.”

Lindell’s proposal wouldn’t prohibit rodeos, which also are opposed by various advocacy groups for animals.

“The rodeo has a very, very long, proud tradition in this town,” Lindell said. “I think that there are tremendous differences how that livestock is cared for as opposed to some of these exotic animals that are totally and completely out of their natural element.”

Delcianna Winders, vice president for the Foundation to Support Animal Protection, also known as the PETA Foundation, said rodeos are just as bad as circuses but that Lindell’s proposal is still a positive sign.

“Rodeos definitely abuse animals in many of the same ways circuses do, including the use of electric prods and other weapons that cause suffering,” Winders said. “Of course, no animal is ours to use for entertainment, and we would like to see rodeos banned, but I think ending the use of wild animals for entertainment is a really good first step.”

Everett said including rodeos in the proposed ban came up in discussions with Lindell.

“Councilwoman Lindell said, ‘If we did that, it would kill the whole thing. There’s just absolutely no way that we could include rodeos,’ ” Everett said. “Some of them do abuse animals in a similar way to circuses. But it’s such a cultural thing here in New Mexico that to try to include rodeos would just kill the whole proposal, so we backed away.”

Winders said more than 70 jurisdictions across the United States and dozens of countries have either banned or restricted wild animal circuses.

“The states are just now starting to get in on this action,” she said. “California and Rhode Island banned bullhooks, which are the weapons that are used to make elephants perform, so they effectively banned traveling elephant acts. And, just in the last few weeks, the state legislatures in Illinois and New York passed traveling elephant bans, so those bills are on the governors’ desks in those states.”

Animal Protection of New Mexico last week contacted the president of the Rodeo de Santa Fe with concerns about a Garden Bros. Circus that had scheduled three shows for Saturday afternoon and evening in Santa Fe. The advocacy group said Garden Bros. Circus also uses bullhooks on elephants, and it made a raft of other complaints about its treatment of animals.

But, in a twist, Garden Bros. Circus on Monday indefinitely postponed its Santa Fe shows because of a heat wave.

“Garden Bros. Circus strives to make every attendee’s experience a wonderful one, and we feel this outdoor venue would not provide that,” the company said in a statement.

Customers who bought tickets for the Garden Bros. Circus in Santa Fe can use them at performances this weekend in Farmington or Rio Rancho, if they choose to, said Jim Davis, director of booking for the circus. Both those cities are hosting the circus in indoor arenas.

Davis said Garden Bros. Circus probably would not return to Santa Fe until September 2018. It typically would not have scheduled shows for an outdoor arena in July but did so after adding dates in the West because of the closure in May of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Davis said the proposed ordinance in Santa Fe to ban circuses had no bearing on his company’s decision, as nobody was aware of the measure.

As for Winders of the PETA Foundation, she said Santa Fe’s proposal reflects changing public opinions about circuses.

“We know that Ringling Brothers shuttered after a decade of falling ticket sales,” she said. “Other circuses are taking a different approach and choosing to phase out wild animal acts. But one way or another, the writing is the wall for wild animal circuses.”

Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 505-986-3089 or dchacon@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.