As Pittsburgh city council passes circus animal training regulations, Shriners send in the clowns

As Pittsburgh city council passes circus animal training regulations, Shriners send in the clowns

Author: Stephen Caruso/Tuesday, December 19, 2017/Categories: Pittsburgh

Lions and tigers and bears were on Pittsburgh city council’s agenda Tuesday when it approved a ban on the use of bullhooks and other instruments to train wild or exotic animals in the city.

The resolution, sponsored by City Council President Bruce Kraus (District 3), passed 6-3, with dissenting votes from Councilwomen Darlene Harris (District 1), Theresa Kail-Smith (District 2) and Deb Gross (District 7).

For Kraus, the passage marked the end of a year and a half long push to pass the ban, which he saw as a moral issue.

“There’s a clear shift in the conversation in how we abuse animals in forms of entertainment,” Kraus said of the bill, looking at similar to bans at other levels of local governance, from city to county to state.

The vote also brought a large amount of controversy to city hall, as animal rights activists, as well as Shriners, an international fraternal association known for their red fez hats, and officials from the Pittsburgh Zoo crowded the council chambers to give an hour's worth of public comment.

Some of the outrage even spilled over onto the sidewalks outside the City-County Building downtown, where four Shriners stood outside holding signs in support of their circus. The Shriners often put on circuses to help finance the organization.

The circuses can either finance their organizational budget, or go to the free hospitals the group runs for poor children.

With a rainbow wig and red and white striped paints, George Edwards, a 70 year old Pittsburgher, stood as one of those protesters. He saw the bill as an attack on the good work of the Shriners.

“If there had been any animal cruelty, we wouldn’t put up with it,” Edwards said.

Inside the council chambers, where more made up clowns and fez-wearing Shriners sat, the message was similar, with concerns that the ban would make it impossible to put on circuses.

Likewise, officials from the Pittsburgh Zoo said the ban would put the life of some zoo employees who deal directly with the animals at risk.

But animal rights activists pushed back such bans were already implemented in many other locales, such as the states of New York, Rhode Island and California, as well as cities in Florida, Ohio and Kentucky that hadn't had adverse impacts on local zoos or circuses.

At the state level, Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) has introduced legislation that would effectively ban circuses in Pennsylvania, but it never gained traction.

On council, some of the most vocal opposition came from the North Side’s Harris, who as a private citizen, has raised wild animals. She thought the bill would make the job for the city’s animal trainers tougher.

“I’m a real animal lover...but this stunts circuses, this stunts the zoo, because they have to have those tools,” Harris said.

Earlier in the year, during her campaign for the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Pittsburgh, Harris rode an elephant from the Shriner circus. She said she did so to check for signs of abuse, and said she found none.

The bill still has to be signed by Mayor Bill Peduto before it becomes law.

Despite the controversy however, Brian Bonsteel, President and Founder of Humane Action Pittsburgh, an animal rights group, said he was overjoyed at the passage.

“This is a new day for wild animals in the city of Pittsburgh,” Bonsteel said. “No longer will they be under the suffering of a bullhook, a hacksaw, a baseball bat simply to be used for entertainment purposes.”