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These clowns aren’t happy about Pittsburgh’s proposed circus act ban

Bob Bauder
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Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Clowns and Shriners packed a Pittsburgh City Council meeting Tuesday, May 24, 2016. Council is considering a ban on animal acts.
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Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Shriners pack a Pittsburgh City Council meeting Tuesday, May 24, 2016 as Pittsburgh considers a ban on wild animal acts.
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Shriners, who perform as clowns in the Shriners Circus, protest Tuesday in front of the City-County Building, Downtown, against a proposed city ordinance that would ban circuses and other events that use live animals.

Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday resembled a three-ring circus.

More than 100 people crammed into a public hearing to argue for and against proposed legislation that would ban events featuring animal acts — including circuses — from performing in the city.

The standing-room-only crowd featured Shriners wearing colorful fezzes and clowns from the Syrian Shrine circus carrying signs protesting the bill sponsored by City Council President Bruce Kraus of the South Side.

Supporters offered graphic and sometimes emotional testimony, claiming animals are beaten, zapped with electric prods and gouged with hooks to force them to perform.

Opponents said institutions featuring live animals are governed by federal law. They denied allegations of abuse and said the ordinance is redundant and unconstitutional.

“None of the speakers in favor of this ordinance have any experience or expertise in actually working with wild exotic animals,” said Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, which would be exempt from the ordinance along with the National Aviary in the North Side.

Kraus’ bill would ban wild and exotic animals from being used for public entertainment or amusement. It includes circus animals such as chimpanzees, elephants, monkeys, lions and tigers.

He said he would consider calling for a vote after weighing the testimony and working on a compromise bill.

“I have no intention of bringing this legislation back for a vote until I am sure we have thoroughly vetted (it),” Kraus said.

City Councilwoman Darlene Harris of Spring Hill said the ordinance is unnecessary.

“I grew up loving animals because of going to the circus and seeing those animals,” she said. “Never when I went to a circus or a petting zoo did I see anyone mistreating animals.”

Supporters of the ordinance called circuses a dying and brutal tradition. They said perceptions are changing and Pittsburgh could become a leader in banning wild animal acts.

More than 30 U.S. cities have similar ordinances, according to Los Angeles-based Animal Defenders International.

“The use of wild animals in circuses and carnivals and roadside shows is really a violation of nature,” said Rochelle Landis of Squirrel Hill.

Animals don’t jump through flaming hoops because they like it, said Shadyside dentist Brian Bonsteel, founder and president of Humane Action Pittsburgh, an animal rights group that helped write the legislation.

“They perform out of fear of what will happen to them if they don’t,” he said.

Officials, veterinarians and experts in animal training and care lined up to disagree.

Paul Leavy, who chairs the Shrine Circus, said the annual event in Pittsburgh supports 22 hospitals that provide free care to children. The circus is educational and good for the Pittsburgh economy, he believes.

“There’s not a person in this room that is not for animal welfare,” he said. “I don’t think Mr. Kraus or anybody has a right to decide what type of entertainment … that Pittsburgh families can see.”

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].

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