Minneapolis' attempt to protect circus animals may run them out of town. A new ordinance would allow elephants in circuses, but kids would no longer be able to ride or touch them.
If that happens, the show may not go on.
"We'll seriously consider leaving the city if we can't do elephant rides," said Tim Davison, the Minneapolis Shriners' assistant circus chairman. Elephant rides are a highlight and a moneymaker of the annual fall circus shows at Target Center, which are the group's principal fundraiser.
"That's the effect of having a ban without actually having a ban," Davison added.
Friday's anticipated City Council vote comes nearly a year after a ban of wild animal circuses was first introduced by Council Member Ralph Remington. The idea ignited a vigorous debate that attracted local and national animal experts to town. Minneapolis would've been the second major U.S. city besides Albuquerque, N.M., to adopt such a measure.
In September, the council narrowly voted against an outright ban, and opted instead for a milder proposal of increased regulations, higher permit fees and stiffer fines for circus operators now ranging from $500 to $1,000 depending on the violation.
Council Member Paul Ostrow, who wrote the proposed ordinance with colleague Betsy Hodges, called it a "win-win situation for everybody."
Not willing to go that far, Christine Coughlin, executive director for the local nonprofit Circus Reform Yes, said this week her group feels better about the issue compared to four months ago.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Coughlin, who first brought the topic to city leaders nearly eight years ago. "I think the fact that this has taken so long is parallel with broader themes in our society in terms of environmental and animal awareness. We're making inroads."
The proposed ordinance also includes a license fee of $750, on- and off-site inspections at circuses with city animal control staff and contracted veterinarians, likely from the University of Minnesota. The inspections will come at the circus operator's expense.
Since last fall, city staff has met twice with wild animal circus proponents and opponents to reach a common ground.
Last week, a council committee passed the proposed ordinance with Council Member Cam Gordon's amendments citing specifically against animal cruelty and neglect, and eliminating the popular elephant rides because of public safety concerns.
"We could still have a great circus experience and a profitable one if we did without this act," said Gordon during last week's public safety and regulatory services committee meeting. "This would be a way to proactively avoid a horrible situation."
The Shriners were taken aback by the Gordon amendments.
The organization has never received any complaints nor have patrons been injured from the rides that cost about $8 last year, Davison said.
"If they were dangerous, then we wouldn't be able to carry insurance," Davison said. "We have people lining up at our shows to take a ride. Why? They're trying to make it difficult for us because we led the charge against a total ban."
For their part Remington and Gordon still both prefer an outright ban on circus animals.
"We've come a long way," Remington said. "But it can go just a little bit further."
Terry Collins • 612-673-1790