Will the show go on after Illinois bans circus elephants?

Last month, lawmakers made Illinois the first state in the country to outright ban elephants from performing in traveling shows, eliciting boos from circus managers and cheers from animal welfare advocates.

The law could be a watershed moment for circuses, which have struggled to maintain already-declining ticket sales without elephants.

For suburban residents, one of the last chances to see elephants perform will be at the Kelly Miller Circus, which rolled into Illinois this weekend with shows in Elk Grove Village, Waukegan, Round Lake Beach, Island Lake and other towns.

The law takes effect Jan. 1.

“We are grateful that the fine folks of Illinois will be able to share in these elephants this year, but next year is a different story,” said Tavana Brown, general manager of the Kelly Miller Circus. “Animal rights extremists put their agenda through without letting the public know.”

Groups such as The Humane Society of the United States and the Brookfield and Lincoln Park zoos supported the legislation.

The measure passed the state House and Senate with overwhelming majorities.

“These animals don’t perform these silly tricks because they want to; they perform them because they’re scared not to,” said Debbie Leahy, manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society.

The nation’s first

Illinois is the first state to ban circus elephants, but others are close behind. New York state lawmakers passed similar legislation that is awaiting the signature of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

And about 130 communities in 34 states have various restrictions on the use of wild animals in traveling shows or circuses, according to The Humane Society.

Animal welfare advocates argue circuses subject elephants to harmful tools, including bullhooks and electric prods, and confined spaces while on tour.

“Traveling circuses are not able to properly care for elephants and, as a result, elephant exhibitions in Illinois have been found to be in violation of the Federal Animal Welfare Act several times,” Aurora state Sen. Linda Holmes, who sponsored the legislation, said in a news release. “Allowing these inhumane practices to continue would be irresponsible and poor stewardship of such impressive animals.”

The legislation also had support from Illinois resident and actress Jane Lynch, famous for her role on the television show “Glee.”

Circus defends care

Yet the Kelly Miller Circus stands behind its treatment of elephants. The circus recently posted a video on its website depicting life on the road for Jenny and Cindy, the 51-year-old and 45-year-old Asian elephants performing at the circus this summer.

The circus wants to be transparent and show the elephants up close, allowing visitors to watch the elephants eat breakfast as workers set up for evening performances, Brown said.

In the video, elephant trainer Joey Frisco said he keeps the intelligent elephants stimulated and exercises them daily, even taking them on walks through wooded areas. The elephants are bathed once a day and travel in semitrailers no more than two hours at a time, he said.

Rebecca Ostroff, a ringmaster in the circus, said visitors create emotional bonds with animals when they go to shows and argued the circus helps further conservation efforts.

“I think any kind of intelligent caring and propagating of the species and sharing of land resources is good for elephant conservation,” she said.

A final act?

The new law is casting more doubt on whether traditional circuses will survive.

In May, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its final show after 146 years. The circus had removed elephants from its show a year earlier and saw its ticket sales drop.

“Circuses can still come to Illinois — they just can’t use elephants,” Leahy said. “We’re seeing interesting and innovating shows replacing traditional circus shows.”

The Kelly Miller Circus, which has an elephant emblazoned in its logo, plans to continue touring the state next year without the animals. Still, absence of the large, friendly-looking animals could hurt attendance.

“They’re part of our story,” Ostroff said. “What did people want to go see at Ringling? They wanted to go see elephants. People really missed them.”

The circus was flooded with calls and emails from residents worried the circus wouldn’t continue after Barnum and Bailey closed, signaling a broad customer base in the state, Brown said.

She was adamant the circus won’t skip Illinois next year.

“The show will always go on,” she said.


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