Debate on proposed circus ban delayed, but far from over

When City Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) first heard about efforts to ban wild circus animals in Minneapolis while campaigning for his Council seat, he admits he wasn’t sure the issue was a serious concern for the city.

“I was like, ‘What? Yeah, right!'” Remington said. “But when I investigated and learned more about it, I realized it is a serious issue.”

The bull hooks and whips that are used to get wild circus animals to perform tricks in front of circus audiences go against the city’s policies prohibiting the inhumane treatment of animals, Remington said. So despite criticisms from some members of the community who argue that there are more important issues the City Council should be working on, Remington and Council Member Cam Gordon (2nd Ward) plan to propose an ordinance change that would ban wild circus animals from the city. It’s a move they say would better align the law with the city’s policy against the inhumane treatment of animals, as well as protect circus goers against potential attacks by wild animals.

The measure was scheduled to be introduced to the City Council at the end of March but now likely won’t be introduced until the June 29 meeting. Part of the reason is because some council members wanted to wait until the Minnesota Legislature adjourns and they can give more attention to the issue, Remington said, adding that the majority of council members do support the proposal.

But others, such as Council President Barb Johnson (4th Ward), join critics who say the Council has better things to work on. She said Minneapolis needs to first address issues such as the skyrocketing number of foreclosures, public safety problems and a financially ailing library system. The proposed ban on circus animals also creates an image of the city Johnson said she doesn’t care for.

“I think it makes our city look like we’re at the extreme end of the spectrum, and I think it makes us look like we don’t have anything better to do,” Johnson said.

Lyndale resident Ray Neset said he’s disappointed with Remington’s push for circus reform. He said Remington should be paying more attention what he considers more pressing local priorities, such as reducing crime.

“I wish he would focus more of his time on things that were going to make livability in our city better,” Neset said.

Johnson also argues that there are financial implications to the ban because circuses provide revenue for the financially struggling Target Center.

“We are right now at the Legislature asking for debt relief on the Target Center. It would be, I think, viewed with such skepticism by legislators if we’re up there asking for handouts with the Target Center while at the same time turning away forms of revenue,” Johnson said.

Remington counters by arguing that financial concerns shouldn’t stand in the way of doing what’s right.

“Those are legitimate concerns, but those same economic arguments were used to justify the continuation of the African slave trade in this country,” Remington said, adding that he knows some people will consider that argument hyperbolic, but he thinks it’s a valid point.

He also balks at the argument that the City Council has better things to spend its time on.

“We’re capable of working on more than one issue at a time,” Remington said. “We do it all the time. That argument is specious and ill-informed.”

Gordon said while the ordinance is important, it isn’t necessarily one of the items at the top of his priority list. He’s spending a small amount of time working on it compared to some of the other issues his office feels are important, he said. And, he said, this issue is clearly within the City Council’s purview.

“We do a lot to control animals in the city, and we don’t allow dog fights, rooster fights or bull fights,” Gordon said, adding that he’s surprised at the emotional chord the circus amendment has struck with both supporters and opponents.

One of the organizations lobbying for the ordinance is Circus Reform Yes! (CRY). Formed seven years ago by Armatage resident Eileen Adamec and her husband Carl, the nonprofit group has advocated on behalf of wild animals used in entertainment. In addition to pushing for the passage of this ordinance, the group has handed out information about the handling of wild circus animals throughout the city.

“There’s no way you can have wild animals in confinement humanely,” Eileen Adamec said.

Christine Coughlin, executive director of CRY, said animal-free circuses – such as Cirque Du Soleil or circuses with acrobats and clowns but not wild animals – are a good alternative and would continue to generate money for event venues in Minneapolis.

“The Target Center does not need to lose an ounce of its revenue because it can bring in an animal-free circus,” Coughlin said.

Like Remington, she said the economic argument shouldn’t stand in the way of doing what’s right anyway.

“If finances are the bottom line, we might as well bring dog fighting and cock fighting into the Target Center,” Coughlin said.

Calhoun Area Residents Action Group (CARAG) board member and resident Stephen Eisenmenger said he supports the amendment because it raises awareness about animal cruelty. He said if the Council has an opportunity to stop mistreatment of animals in Minneapolis, they should do it.

“Certainly it’s a practice that happens inside our city’s borders,” he said.

Jake Weyer contributed to this story. Reach Kari VanDerVeen at kvanderveen@mnpubs.com or 436-4373.