Councilwoman drops proposed ban on circus animals in Baltimore County

The circus lives on in Baltimore County.

A county councilwoman said Monday she is withdrawing legislation that would have forbidden traveling animal acts, such as those in a circus, from appearing in the county.

“The timing was not right,” said Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, who introduced the bill last week.

The measure would have affected any circus or other traveling show with live animal acts. But only one circus, the UniverSoul Circus, has put on such performances in the county in recent years.

The bill drew opposition from officials of UniverSoul, believed to be the only African-American-owned circus in the country, as well as County Councilman Julian Jones.

Blevins said she grew concerned the legislation also might have affected educational presentations with wild animals put on by zoos, aquariums and nature centers.

So she decided to shelve the bill and research the issue further.

“It turned into something bigger than I expected,” said Bevins, a Middle River Democrat.

UniverSoul and Jones had planned to host a pro-circus rally before Monday night’s council meeting. They also encouraged circus supporters to testify during the public comment period at the meeting.

Those plans were canceled after Blevins said she is shelving the bill.

Jones, a fan of the UniverSoul Circus, said he was glad the legislation was withdrawn. He was worried the legislation would have chased away UniverSoul.

“I’m relieved this bill is not moving forward,” he said. “The circus is so important to my community.”

Jones said UniverSoul put on 37 shows during its run at Security Square Mall earlier this year, drawing 54,000 patrons.

“I really don’t think the people who proposed the idea knew the circus was so popular,” said Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.

In a statement, UniverSoul officials said they were pleased the bill was withdrawn and look forward to returning to Baltimore County in 2018.

“The State of Maryland and the Baltimore County government have done a tremendous job in safeguarding the health and welfare of animals with their current regulations,” the statement said. “Our mutual efforts to protect animals and humans from abuse will continue."

Bevins and animal rights activists had raised concerns that circus animals are forced into performing in unhealthy conditions. Bevins suggested that circus goers might not be so entertained if they saw the living and traveling conditions for the animals.

County health officials inspect all of UniverSoul’s animals and living conditions while they are here. UniverSoul has had no county violations, officials said.

Deborah Stone Hess, an animal welfare activist who worked with Bevins on the bill, said she hopes this isn’t the final word for protecting circus animals.

“I am disappointed,” Hess said of the bill’s withdrawal. “But I’m hopeful that it will be reintroduced at a later date.”

Cities and states have increasingly banned circus animals or some of the tools used to train them. Most recently, the New York City Council voted in July to ban wild animal acts in circuses, where — as in Baltimore County — UniverSoul is the only circus affected.

The Montgomery County Council is weighing similar legislation.

Pushback against animal acts contributed to the demise of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, which performed its final shows this year. Under pressure from animal rights groups, Ringling Bros. retired its elephants a year ago, and then saw a sharp drop in ticket sales.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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