Lots of howling about exotic animal ban

April 28, 1992|By Storer H. Rowley | Storer H. Rowley,Chicago Tribune

TORONTO -- The uproar began over fear that a topless dancer was being cruel to her exotic sidekicks -- a Burmese python, a cockatoo, a macaw and a 450-pound Siberian tiger named Qadesh.

But after the powerful animal rights lobby got into the act, Toronto's City Council voted to ban exotic animal acts, including circuses and theater or stage shows that use such animals in their productions.

Even the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus can no longer come to town. One survey indicates the city may lose $10 million a year in revenue, and its promoters worry that Toronto may get a reputation as a difficult place to do business.

In a society that prides itself on being kinder, gentler and more politically correct than its neighbor to the south, many Canadians are afraid "Big Brother" is intruding.

"We could mount a great circus at the Skydome, but nothing like the circus at City Council," said David Garrick, vice president of the Toronto Skydome, home of baseball's Toronto Blue Jays.

"What we're nervous about is that the Detroit Tigers can't come to town anymore," deadpanned Mr. Garrick. Jokes also are flying about whether the Monkees and the Turtles could give oldies concerts anymore.

But the ban is no laughing matter to businesses like Skydome. It had to cancel its bookings with Ringling Bros. for this May and in 1993. Likewise, the famed Moscow Circus can't return with its animals. The show can't go on with wild animals at Maple Leaf Gardens either, where a local circus performs annually.

Mr. Garrick said officials from the Skydome, the Canadian National Exhibition, Ringling Bros., Toronto's Garden Bros. Circus, the Maple Leaf Gardens and two local performance centers will meet this week to consider possible legal action.

"It's a sad day for the children," said Garden Bros. Vice President Ian Garden.

The ban was approved March 23, but the controversy is still boiling over the council's vote to start strictly enforcing an old Toronto bylaw prohibiting exotic animal acts.

The bylaw covers creatures not indigenous to North America, ranging from elephants, rhinoceroses and chimpanzees to lions, tigers and even certain bears.

Domestic animals are exempted and zoos and educational displays are not affected, at least for now.

Toronto is not alone. Municipalities from London, England, to Vancouver have banned exotic animal acts. Further, circus animal acts are under increasing criticism even in the U.S. by groups who consider them anachronistic spectacles that are inherently inhumane.

Chicago collided with Canada's animal rights forces in 1989 when the Shedd Aquarium sent a team to Manitoba to acquire beluga whales for its new Oceanarium. Critics said keeping marine mammals captive in pools is inhumane.

"I just think human culture evolves," said City Councilor Peter Tabuns, who became the driving force behind Toronto's ban after receiving complaints about a striptease involving Qadesh, the Siberian tiger, being performed in his ward.

"In the past some things were acceptable to society that are no longer acceptable," Mr. Tabuns said. "Freak shows used to be acceptable, and they aren't now. And I think animal acts are going to go the same way."

Mr. Tabuns argued that the ban is needed to protect the public as well as the animals.

Specifically, he cited cruelty in circuses ranging from electric shocks and rough treatment used in training to the fact the beasts spend their lives in small cages or chained up, except for the few hours they perform.

A Ringling spokesman called the charges of mistreatment "ludicrous."

The $300 million film industry is unaffected by the ban, but moviemakers in Toronto who want to use exotic animals must get them now from government-accredited zoos in Canada.

Animal rights activists point out that the circus concept is slowly evolving to include new acts like Montreal's celebrated Cirque du Soleil, which thrills audiences with clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists and magic -- not animals.

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