ANNAPOLIS There was some snickering in the General Assembly when Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, sent a letter around asking for co-sponsors on a bill to ban the use of elephants for entertainment purposes. But for Baker and others, the bill is part of a serious ongoing battle to ensure the safety and welfare of animals.
Baker’s bill would ban the use of elephants in circuses and for carnival and zoo rides. These elephants are kept in unsanitary and unhealthy conditions, said Baker, a Democrat and chairman of the Prince George’s House delegation.
“The use of elephants is a cruel and inhumane practice,” Baker said.
In addition, Baker said, elephants increasingly have broken free of their trainers and rampaged through crowds at circuses. While there have been no reported incidents in Maryland, Baker said he doesn’t want to take any chances.
Fellow Democrat, Delegate Leon G. Billings, D- Montgomery, sent a facetious letter to Baker suggesting he amend the bill to also prohibit the use of dead elephants. He cracked that the dead elephant is the symbol of the dying Maryland Republican Party.
The bill is no joke to Baker. It was introduced last year by a former colleague of Baker’s but was killed early in the session. Dr. Charles Coloa, a Bowie internist, brought it to Baker’s attention this year.
Colao first became involved in animal welfare issues five years ago when he saw a video of a trainer beating a baby elephant. The elephant, Colao said, was crawling on its knees, bleeding, while people screamed in the background. The trainer was beating the elephant with a bullhook, a common disciplinary tool for elephants consisting of a long rod with a sharpened hook at the end, Colao said.
Such abuses have prompted a movement to remove animals from circuses altogether, said Pat Derby, director of the Performing Animals Welfare Society.
“Elephants, since they are so similar to humans in so many ways, they just tug at the heart-strings of people,” Derby said. If the group is successful in removing elephants from circuses, the hope is other animals will also be banned, she said.
No other state has a law banning the use of animals for entertainment purposes, but some smaller jurisdictions, like Takoma Park, have outlawed all entertainment involving animals. And Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., has said he might introduce similar federal legislation.
Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus said they would fight both the state and the federal legislation. The circus which will roll into Baltimore March 10, the day after the legislation will be debated in the House Judiciary Committee, has 18 elephants. Ringling Bros. has the largest herd of captive elephants in the nation and runs a center for elephant conservation in Florida.
“Elephants are really the heart and soul of Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey Circus, and if we can’t bring the elephants in, then we will not come to the state,” said Joan Galvin, vice president of government relations for the circus.
Ringling’s elephant care meets federal Animal Welfare Act standards, which regulate the housing, transportation and care of all performing animals. The elephants are provided with 24-hour veterinary attention, nutritious meals and clean, safe homes, she said. This is unnecessary legislation motivated by emotional and unfounded concerns, she said.
“In the 129 years we’ve been in business, we’ve never had an incident involving elephants,” Galvin said.
Circuses will always say they don’t beat their animals, said Jennifer O’Conner, a caseworker at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but they have to.
“You just don’t get the most intelligent animal on Earth to stand on its head by saying, `Nice, elephant’ and patting it on the head,” O’Conner said.