Fur is flying over PETA-sponsored bill to ban animal circuses in California

Penelopea, a female porcupine, is held by Kimberly Wright, co-director of Wild Wonders in Bonsall, in this 2017 photo.
Penelopea, a female porcupine, is held by Kimberly Wright, co-director of Wild Wonders in Bonsall, in this 2017 photo. (Bill Wechter)

A newly introduced bill to ban animal circuses and other traveling displays of wildlife has some wild animal care centers squawking foul, while other animal advocates strongly support the measure.

The bill by State Sen. Ben Hueso, (D-San Diego) is called the Circus Cruelty Prevention Act. Also known as SB 313, it is sponsored by Social Compassion in Legislation and the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.


The bill would make it illegal to use wild and exotic animals in traveling acts within the state. This includes transporting animals, except for such necessary purposes as veterinary care. The bill is online at j.mp/casb313.

Among the various animals covered by the bill are marsupials, primates, felids (lions, tigers, etc); canids (including wolves and jackals); camels; llama;, bears; ostriches; and elephants. Violations carry a civil fine of up to $25,000. Common domestic animals, such as dogs, horses and sheep, are not covered by the legislation.


Backers of the bill say transporting wild and exotic animals for entertainment stresses them and therefore is not in their best interest.

Opponents, though, say the proposed restrictions would harm numerous animal education centers that promote wildlife conservation through carefully managed presentations of “animal ambassadors,” as well as such activities as the exhibition of llamas and camels at fairs and community events.

Hueso says the bill doesn’t restrict legitimate animal sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers. He points out that it exempts facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. The bill instead is aimed at circuses and other companies that make money from practices that are inherently cruel to wild or exotic animals.

“There are many ways to teach children and others about wildlife without loading animals in cages, hauling them around, and subjecting them to the stress of unfamiliar environments,” Hueso said in a statement.

Across the state, wild animal centers and sanctuaries express differing opinions about whether the bill would help or harm. Those opposed say it will hurt their educational mission. Those in favor say it will curb abusive treatment. That includes inappropriate treatment by what they say are phony conservation centers.

Opponents in San Diego County include Wild Wonders of Bonsall and Oasis Camel Dairy of Ramona. The companies say the bill will stop them from bringing educational animals to schools and community events.

Neither are accredited by the exempted animal associations. Wild Wonders Executive Director Jackie Navarro said her facility is regulated and inspected by the US Department of Agriculture and is also licensed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Hueso’s bill is praised by Alpine-based Lions, Tigers and Bears. The respected nonprofit animal sanctuary said the bill is an important step toward curbing abuse of wildlife and exotic animals. It is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

PETA spokeswoman Delcianna J. Winders said the bill’s exemptions for facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries were made because they are the only two organizations in the United States that have meaningful regulatory programs for captive wild animals.

“It's a narrowly drafted bill that prohibits the use of a handful of dangerous animals like elephants, lions, tigers and bears and traveling acts,” said Winders, vice president and deputy general counsel for captive animal law enforcement.

“Those are species that are well documented to pose threats to human health and safety,” Winders said.

Elsewhere in the state, opponents include Project Survival’s Cat Haven east of Fresno and Wildlife Learning Center in Sylmar. Both Project Survival and Wildlife Learning Center are nonprofits.

Navarro said the legislation will hurt the company’s educational mission. Wild Wonders lists 120 “animal ambassadors” of varying species, including cheetahs, Burmese pythons, Virginia opossums and Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

“Our mission is to rescue, educate and conserve,” Navarro said. “A majority of our animals have come in as confiscations, relinquishments or abandonments. Some have come from other educational facilities and they've turned into four-legged, no-legged feathered and furred teachers. They're there to inspire the public to be better stewards in the environment.”

Hundreds of animal centers and companies across the state will be affected, in addition to county fairs, Navarro said.

“What most people don't realize is that it involves thousands of outreach educators and smaller organizations that will be completely wiped out if this goes through,” she added.

Membership in organizations such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums would simply be too expensive, she said.

Oasis Camel Dairy wrote on its Facebook page Monday that the bill would “cripple’’ its operations.

“If this bill passes, it criminalizes activities such as having camels in Christmas Nativity scenes at churches, walking in parades, giving camel rides at community events, and taking our camels to schools and fairs to educate communities.”

However, Lions, Tigers, and Bears founder and director Bobbi Brink said transporting wild and exotic animals for display, even camels, stresses them. It is better for people to visit the animals where they are housed, she said.

Even transporting an opossum for a school display is disruptive, Brink said, because these marsupials are nocturnal.

The sanctuary’s rescue animals include Moka the tiger, confiscated from a smuggler in 2017. After a stay at the San Diego Zoo, Moka was relocated last year to a permanent home at Lions, Tigers, and Bears.

Brink challenged Navarro’s claim that accreditation by the organizations specified in the bill is expensive.

The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which accredits Lions, Tigers and Bears, charges $50 a year for small sanctuaries, up to $250 for the largest.

“What's expensive is housing your animals properly,” to meet accreditation standards, Brink said.

Brink criticized what she called “fake conservation” centers around the state.


“There are a lot of exotic animals being carted here and there for nothing more than profit,” she said.


The bill has been referred to the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee; and the Senate Standing Committee on Judiciary. It will likely be heard in April, said Hueso spokeswoman Erin Hickey.

Navarro said Wild Wonders performs fundraisers for conserving animals in the wild.

“Our ambassador cheetahs have raised about a hundred thousand dollars for conservation over in Africa since we've been bringing them to outreach fundraising events for conservation,” Navarro said.

Two local nonprofits — Chula Vista’s Living Coast Discovery Center and the San Diego Humane Society — didn’t express a position, but said they are following matters closely.

Sylmar’s Wildlife Learning Center regularly takes selected animals to schools, libraries, scouting clubs and other community groups as part of its educational mission, said cofounder and director David Riherd.

“The animals are used as living visual aids to demonstrate various concepts in the life sciences or wildlife biology,” Riherd said. This mission is more urgent because the planet is now going through a mass extinction event, he said.

Most of the center’s wildlife are animals that can’t be reintroduced into nature because of injuries or other issue, Riherd said. They include small cats like servals and bobcats, porcupines, eagles, hawks, owls and lemurs.

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