Ringling Bros. Threatens To Pull Circus Out Of Oakland If Bullhook Ban Is Passed

OAKLAND CITY COUNCIL | The circus is coming to the Oakland City Council chambers later this month. An ordinance authored by Oakland Councilmember Libby Schaaf would strengthen regulations on the treatment of circus animals and the safety of spectators, but some council members want a more stringent ban on the brutal use of bullhooks on elephants. Feld Entertainment, the parent company for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, told Schaaf it would pull up stakes at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, if the ban is approved.

Bullhooks like these are used to control
circus elephants. Some council members
want to ban their use in Oakland.

Schaaf says her ordinance is one-year-in-the-making and “creates regulations where there were none before. We should be compassionate and treat animals with dignity, but there’s more that can be done.” The proposed ordinance heard at Tuesday’s Oakland City Council Public Safety Committee imposes greater scrutiny on the treatment of animals and the safety of patrons at events through the city’s existing special events permitting process. The Humane Society of America, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Oakland Zoo all support the proposed ordinance. In addition, it also gives authority to the city administrator’s office and chief of police to impose additional regulations, but, some believe the proposal does not go far enough.

Councilmember Dan Kalb called the ordinance “overall, modest, but a step in the right direction.” However, he strongly indicated a preference for taking the ordinance further to include a ban on bullhooks and other implements used to forcefully control circus animals. The use of bullhooks, baton-like instruments with a small hook and spear affixed to the end, has long received the ire of animal advocacy groups, who say they inflict great pain and fear to the animals.

Councilmember Noel Gallo piggy-backed on Kalb’s assertion and also vowed support for a prohibition before directly asking Schaaf, “Why not ban the bullhook?” Although, Schaaf also registered support for the bullhook ban, she indicated a sense among her other council colleagues that sufficient support was lacking for such a ordinance. She then revealed Feld Entertainment had previously threatened to drop Oakland from its touring schedule if it banned the bullhook. “What Feld said to me is, if we passed [a bullhook ban], Ringling Bros. will not to come to Oakland.” She suggested more needs to be done to identify the economic impacts on the city and county-owned Coliseum and jobs the circus creates.

During a Nov. 25 meeting of the Coliseum Joint Powers Authority, Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid showed interest in the ramifications of Schaaf’s ordinance on business at the arena. A staff member for AEG, which operates O.co Coliseum and Oracle Arena, said Feld Entertainment and its other properties, including Disney on Ice and various supercross and monster truck exhibitions, generate $1 million in revenue for the two facilities. Staff added Feld had also indicated the stronger ordinance would force it to book the circus at San Jose’s SAP Center or the Cow Palace in Daly City. At the same meeting Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, also a member of the Coliseum JPA, said, “We don’t want to do anything that is detrimental to our bottom line here.”

On Tuesday, Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney said there already remains a lack of family-friendly entertainment options for low-income Oakland residents, even with the circus in town. She noted Feld Entertainment often donates free circus tickets to less fortunate groups in the city.

San Jose, Sacramento and Los Angeles currently have regulations on circus performances similar to Schaaf’s proposal. However, last October, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved a ban on the bullhook, effective in three years. According to the Los Angeles Times, Feld Entertainment issued similar threats to move its circus out of Los Angeles County.

Gregory McConnell, an Oakland consultant hired by Feld Entertainment told the Public Safety Committee his client is amendable to the current ordinance and has worked Schaaf’s office to offer its own recommendations. “We consider this a work in progress,” McConnell said. Schaaf added Feld Entertainment has made assurances to her the circus would remain in Oakland under the current legislation.

Deniz Bolbol, an Oakland animal rights’ activists who has documented the poor treatment of performance animals and has organized several protests at Oracle Arena against the Ringling Bros., however, says the ordinance only brings city to the current regulatory standards and objected to language in the legislation asserting the proposal is a progressive one. “This is a fraud. This legislation will do nothing to help animals,” says Bolbol.” There’s nothing progressive about it.”

A version of this article also appears in the East Bay Express.

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