Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey perform in New York City earlier this month. A bill introduced in Congress this week would ban wild animals in traveling circuses. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Mexico, Peru and several other Latin American countries have banned or restricted the use of animals in traveling circuses in recent years. Performing animals are even rarer in Europe, where many nations prohibit them.

There is no such federal law in the United States. But dozens of local bans, as well as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s recent decision to fold its tent, have some lawmakers hoping the American political terrain might now be fertile enough to send all circus elephants, tigers and bears to retirement.

U.S. Reps. Ryan Costello (R-Penn.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) appeared on Capitol Hill this week to introduce a bill that would prohibit wild or exotic animal performances in traveling circuses. Flanked by television actors Jorja Fox and Eric Szmanda, the representatives argued that the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act — known by the unwieldy acronym TEAPSPA — would end the suffering of creatures that profit-motivated humans force to perform unnatural behaviors and live in cramped conditions.

“I don’t think that those practices have any place in the fabric of our society,” said Costello, who added that his constituents are keenly interested in animal welfare issues.

The question is whether they and lots of other Americans are interested enough to push for a nationwide ban on circus animals. The bill is only the latest iteration of a proposal that’s been introduced in Congress several times before but has never gotten far. Also at the Hill event was former U.S. representative Jim Moran of Virginia, who noted that he was “sorry” it had never passed before but said the idea “did make some inroads.”

There’s little question that public sentiment about performing and captive animals, particularly those considered highly intelligent, is changing. The Ringling Bros. announcement in January, which cited a decline in ticket sales, came after local laws and pressure from animal protection groups prompted the show to retire its elephants. Last year, SeaWorld decided to stop breeding orcas, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore is planning to move its dolphins to a sanctuary.

And animal welfare issues, as Costello suggested, have far more bipartisan support than many topics under consideration in Washington.

What’s more, backers of the bill say, the Trump administration’s zeal for cost-cutting could work in their favor. Circuses with animals are subject to federal inspection under the Animal Welfare Act. Retiring the animals would therefore reduce spending on inspections, making it a “win-win” for the government and for the creatures, said Jan Creamer, president of Animal Defenders International, whose campaigns helped drive the Latin America bans.

“There’s an immediate budget cut,” Creamer said. She said a ban would affect 19 traveling circuses with about 300 animals.


A trainer moves a dromedary during a show at the Cedeno Hermanos Circus in Mexico City in 2015, before a ban in that nation took effect. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

But there’s also an anti-regulatory zeal these days in Washington, and many lawmakers are loath to dole out sweeping new restrictions to industries — and that includes circuses. One opponent of TEAPSPA is the Cavalry Group, an advocacy group for “animal enterprise,” which last year said the idea “would deprive countless Americans the ability to experience endangered animals up close, such as elephants and tigers.”

The company that runs Ringling Bros., of course, has also lobbied against the bill in the past. Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, indicated it would no longer be a priority now that the circus is closing. But, he said, it remains a bad idea premised on inaccurate information about how circus animals are trained and cared for.

“This is clearly driven by animal rights groups, rather than being based in any factual information or talking to people who work with exotic animals,” Payne said. “There are exceptions for film, television, advertising and rodeos. This is clearly driven by these organizations who are targeting circuses.”

Moran and Creamer, for their part, seemed to acknowledge that the idea is not very likely to sail through Congress, though Moran said a lot of “grass-roots activity” would help. In other words: Public pressure — plus a plethora of competing entertainment options — helped bring an end to the 146-year-old Ringling circus, and it would probably take a whole lot of public pressure on lawmakers to lead to a national ban.

Creamer seemed unfazed. Bills her organization has pushed in other countries have gone through “three, four or more evolutions,” she said. The political landscape, she added, “does need to evolve.”

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