Charlotte will consider tighter restrictions on circus animals

Charlotte will consider tighter restrictions on circus animals

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

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Editor’s note: After this story ran, City Council held a surprising vote on Dec. 13 to ban exotic and wild animals from traveling acts, including circuses. It passed 6-4. 

Charlotte City Council on Monday will debate new rules for circuses with exotic animals, amid a yearslong campaign from local animal rights advocates.

Details: Current city codes forbid most people from keeping wild animals, with certain exceptions, including for circuses. The proposals on the city’s agenda would not completely put a stop to animals in circuses.

  • Instead, they would prevent the use of certain devices if they are likely to cause suffering or physical injury. That includes banning what’s known as a “bullhook,” a training implement often used for elephants with a sharp hook at the end, as well as whips and electric prods.

Why it matters: A number of cities and states have begun to ban or limit exotic animal performances in circuses, including Asheville. These types of performances are less common these days but Charlotte still hosts shows routinely by groups like UniverSoul Circus.

  • The growing attention to animal cruelty and protests from groups like PETA and the Humane Society have had a major impact on the circus business. In 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down.
  • Charlotte has not updated certain language around exotic animals since 1985.

Yes, but: Advocates say the bullhook ban doesn’t go far enough. They want the city to bar exotic animal performances in circuses altogether, arguing that they are a form of abuse.


And the city’s ordinances already outlaw animal cruelty, so the activists say the bullhook ban won’t accomplish much.

“The council is also trying to look performative,” says Kristen Moyer, co-director of North Carolina Voters for Animal Welfare. “They’re putting a corporation that profits off of animals ahead of what the citizens of the city are asking.”

The other side: Council members have had to balance the demands of animal welfare groups with the concerns the circus, particularly UniverSoul, have raised about the restrictions.

Media representatives from UniverSoul did not respond to a request from Axios. But in a February 2020 council meeting, Ben Johnson, the circus’s director of operations, said the language the city was proposing was too broad and vague.

  • He said veterinarians and animal control inspectors visit the circus’ shows throughout the country multiple times per year.
  • “We have done our best over the years to represent the good actors in the business,” he told council members. “And for us to be thrown into a pool of bad actors with legislation like this is not fair at all.”

UniverSoul is a Black-owned and operated circus and was founded to highlight diverse talent.

During the last public hearing, some residents said they supported the circus because it provides opportunities for at-risk youth in Charlotte.

  • “I’m sure everyone sitting in these seats right here can afford a Panthers’ ticket,” Julius Bishop, co-founder of nonprofit Positive Youth Transformation, said, motioning at the crowd. “Low-income families cannot, but what they can afford is a circus ticket.”
  • Proponents for the restrictions have said they are not trying to shut down the circus, just the animal performances.

What’s next: Two proposals were posted on the council’s agenda as of Friday afternoon. Both would take effect in July of next year.

  • The key difference between them is that one would allow bullhooks, electric prods and other devices for training and guiding if they do not cause suffering or injury, while the other prohibits them altogether.
  • The complete ban on bullhooks and similar devices is what council was slated to vote on in September, before it was delayed. According to the agenda, the other version was submitted by an “interested party.”

Council member Matt Newton tells me he specifically requested that the council vote on whether or not to fully ban exotic animals from circuses on Monday. He says he received a recommendation from city attorney Patrick Baker to do just that recently, and is unsure why it doesn’t appear to be on the agenda.

  • Newton said not at least considering what advocates have been pushing for for years surmounts to “political theater.”
  • “It’s undemocratic,” he said. “I think it’s neglecting the voice of half of the stakeholders, if not the greater majority of stakeholders in this conversation.”

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