Animal Defenders of Westchester

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Animal Defenders of Westchester
P.O. Box 205
Yonkers, NY 10704


Town plans to ban circus

Law barring groups using big animals to be Westchester's first

published in THE JOURNAL NEWS on feb.10, 2002:
Journal-News (Westchester County, NY)
Journal News, The (Westchester County, NY)
The Journal News
February 10, 2002

Author: Robert Marchant; Staff

The big top may be coming down in Greenburgh.

Bowing to the animal rights movement, the Town Board is preparing to ban traveling circuses and rodeos from municipal property, ending a five-year run of performances by elephants and big cats at a town park in Hartsdale.

Joining a growing national debate on the issue of animals rights, Greenburgh would become the first town in Westchester County to legally prohibit the display of large animals in captivity for amusement purposes. The ban would not apply to school or private property.

"It's a humanitarian issue,'' Town Supervisor Paul Feiner said.

Under a deal formulated at Town Hall, trustees would allow one final circus show from May 30 to June 2 to benefit the Dads' Club, a volunteer group that promotes sports programs ! for children. After that, there would be no more traveling circuses allowed at Webb Field on Central Park Avenue.

The Dads' Club has sponsored the circus at the park most recently under a contract with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, one of the largest and oldest performing troupes in the country.

An organizer with the Dads' Club, Chuck Bronz, said the group was disappointed with the town's decision.

"We don't agree with it, but we accept it,'' he said.

Feiner said he was persuaded by a local animal-rights coalition to ban circuses and rodeos after a debate arose over the issue last year, when the circus came to town.

"A lot of people feel that, although circuses can be fun for children, there's a potential danger for the animals,'' Feiner said, "Some animals have died, and some animals are beaten and chained. There's also a concern for public safety.''

Though the Greenburgh law would set a precedent in Westchester, other ! municipalities around the country - such as Stamford, Conn., Hollywood , Fla., Southampton, N.Y., and Quincy, Mass. - have prohibited big-animal shows. (Ironically, the legislation would be enacted in a region often credited as the birthplace of the modern American circus. Northern Westchester and Putnam County were the home of the first traveling animal acts in the early 19th century.)

The passage of circus-prohibition laws has often followed rancorous debate. Animal-rights advocates portray acts with elephants and tigers as a barbaric throwback to a time when animals were tortured for fun. Defenders maintain it is a humane and educational form of entertainment with deep roots in American culture, one that should not be criminalized by a small group of activists.

The debate was brought to new heights recently when a criminal charge was filed against Mark Gebel, a circus trainer, for his handling of an elephant in San Jose, Calif. A jury acquitted him of the charge in December.

Greenburgh is modeling its law after one en! acted by the city of Pasadena, Calif. The local version is expected to be adopted, following a public hearing which has not been scheduled yet, in about a month. Feiner, a vegetarian, said he felt "strongly'' about the issue of animal rights and noted that other Town Board members had reached a similar consensus on the subject.

Feiner, a two-time congressional candidate, has aimed to make Greenburgh a leader on social issues before. The town was the second in Westchester to offer health benefits to municipal employees with same-sex partners. He also created a telephone call-in segment during Town Board meetings, and a less-than-successful dating program for Greenburgh singles.

Bronz said The Dads' Club would find an alternative to the annual circus in Greenburgh, or find another location outside the town for the event. He said he did not believe animals were mistreated at the Hartsdale circus.

"We've researched this, and we felt they did a very good job protecting their animals,'' he said.

But Yonkers animal-rights activist Kiley Blackman, who lobbied the Greenburgh Town Board on the subject, said that circus acts involving big animals were inherently cruel and that local legislation was an important way to deter animal abuse.

"The bottom line, whether you think training is humane or not, is that these animals travel from town to town in chains and boxcars,'' she said. "They're not our slaves. They're not our property.''

Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. has drawn the ire of animal-rights activists around the country. The groups have pointed to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the company's animal-welfare policies, that has so far resulted in a warning letter and a suspended fine. Opponents also cite several instances in which the company's elephants went on a rampage.

But the circus says its animals are cared for with the highest standards and calls its opponents "fringe groups'' that are out to manipulate public opinion and legislation through distortion.

"There's absolutely no mistreatment to animals in our circus. We're inspected, we're monitored, and we're open so people can come and see what we do with the animals anytime," said Renee Storey, spokeswoman for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus in DeLand, Fla.

Reach Robert Marchant at [email protected]  or 914-694-3519.

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