In the annals of Orange County neighborhood traditions, Anaheim's train of elephants was always one of the more innocuous ones. Every summer for decades, when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus would stop in town—first at the Anaheim Convention Center, now at the Honda Center—the circus train would linger for a couple of hours along Santa Ana Street, in the middle of one of the city's historical barrios, to the oohs and ahhs of children and parents. The train would then proceed to its temporary home, where the elephants would step out of its cargo trains.
It's beloved, it's photogenic—and now, it's endangered.
On Aug. 21, Anaheim City Councilwoman Lorri Galloway—taking a break from the city's recent long, hot summer of riots—called for an ordinance to ban the use of exotic animals within city limits that, though broadly worded, would predominantly target the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which brings its performing lions, tigers and elephants to town every summer.
Animal activists who'd just alleged to the council that Ringling Bros. routinely harms elephants cheered.
For years, they have tried to get the city to stop allowing performances by circus animals, and for the past couple, they have had Galloway's ear. And eyes. At a July 2010 meeting, after Born Free USA representatives shared with the Anaheim council photos that allegedly depicted the abuse of baby elephants, Galloway said the pictures showed some "terrible, terrible things" and called on the city manager to return with a report detailing how circus animals are treated.
However, striking a diplomatic tone, Galloway also said she supported circuses, which are "part of Americana" and can bring audiences "excitement."
The diplomatic tone is gone now. Galloway was part of a group that in recent years took a backstage tour of the circus, where it was demonstrated that Ringling Bros.' care for animals meets government standards. While she said she agrees the circus does it correctly, she continued that she still opposes using animals for entertainment, according to observers.
Galloway's mind was thus made up when she and her colleagues were greeted Aug. 21 by animal activists who went to the mic with their allegations. The councilwoman was just preaching to the choir.
"What I've seen, the methods used to make a wild animal stand on its head for entertainment, has sickened me," Galloway said. "I know it's considered part of Americana to have elephants in circuses, but it's time for change."
Emboldened by the applause, Galloway then said of prohibiting performing animals, "I think it would be a huge move for the city of Anaheim. Other cities have bans on exotic animals, but they aren't Anaheim. They don't have the Honda Center. It would send a loud message."
Those other cities include Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Santa Ana, which last year tightened rules at its zoo that essentially killed an elephant-ride attraction. The Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa also ended elephant rides just before the start of this summer's run.
A draft ordinance that would require the support of two other Anaheim council members besides Galloway is expected to come back to the dais in September. A strong push back can be expected from Feld Entertainment, the owner of several events that tour the planet, including the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Strongly denying the circus abuses animals, Feld officials routinely point reporters to the Ringling Bros.' wildlife sanctuary in central Florida and websites that document the care for animals in between shows and on the road, where they are well fed, bathed daily and carried in custom, ventilated rail cars. The animals are always under the watchful eyes of trained animal experts with years of experience, according to circus officials, who note that veterinarians are also on the job around the clock.
Licensing, inspections and regulation by local, state and federal animal-care agencies is part of doing business as well, notes Stephen Payne, Feld Entertainment vice president of Corporate Communications.
Take the most recent Southern California swing. Before trains rolled into Anaheim for Ringling Bros.' 10-day engagement at the Honda Center that ended in early August, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors had been on site at the previous stop, the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Payne tells the Weekly.
In Anaheim, state inspectors were on hand "a lot," says Payne, adding the close federal and California scrutiny resulted in "perfect inspections, no issues."
He believes city officials around the country such as Galloway are being egged on by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which just wants to kill the circus.
"This is just part of their agenda, to keep pushing this," Payne said. "They keep saying their list of jurisdictions is growing. That's not true. Ten million people per year come to the circus, and one person from PETA complains."
He says Anaheim leaders should focus more on what the circus brings to town. Feld conducts economic studies at its tour stops around the country, and, according to Payne, for the recent two-week Anaheim run, the circus pumped $1 million into the local economy. That included revenues from not only the obvious—such as facility rental and ticket, refreshment and souvenir sales—but also taxes, hiring local workers, buying local feed for the animals, food and lodging for touring employees, and more.
At the council meeting, which included no testimony from Feld officials because they had no idea Galloway's proposal was coming, the councilwoman swore her ordinance would not kill the circus, pointing to successful Circus Vargas and Cirque du Soleil shows that use no exotic animals.
"I think Ringling Bros. could do the same," Galloway said. "They need to acclimate the same way. Children think 'circus,' and they still want to come, whether elephants are in the show or not."
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Asked whether Ringling Bros. could still fill the Honda Center without performing elephants, Payne essentially answered that it's a moot question.
"We're not going to find out because elephants have been part of the entire history of Ringling Bros.," he said. "It's the No. 1 reason people go to our shows. Get rid of the elephants? Never!"
This article appeared in print as "Political Circus: PETA-vs.-Ringling Bros. war spills into Anaheim council chambers, where a circus-animal ban is proposed."