San Francisco bans performances by exotic animals

AP News
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Posted: Apr 21, 2015 7:12 PM

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco supervisors on Tuesday approved a prohibition on performances using wild animals, joining dozens of other places that frown upon the display of bears and big cats, elephants and monkeys for human entertainment.

The ban applies to circuses, backyard birthday parties and filming of movies and television shows. Cats, dogs and other domesticated pets are exempt, as are animals used for educational purposes.

The ordinance, which heads to Mayor Ed Lee for consideration, prohibits a number of exotic animals from being required to do tricks, spar or otherwise perform for an audience.

Advocates and opponents agree that San Francisco will be the largest city in the U.S. to enact such a comprehensive prohibition that goes beyond a traveling circus, for example, and applies to filming.

A movie such as 1998's Dr. Dolittle, starring Eddie Murphy as a San Francisco doctor who finds himself able to talk to wild animals, could not be filmed in the city under the new ordinance.

The nonprofit group Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, said there are about three dozen cities or counties that prohibit the display of performing wild animals.

Other localities in the U.S. with bans include West Hollywood and Huntington Beach in Southern California; Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Greenburgh, New York.

Tuesday's vote by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was a formality and came without comment.

"The thing to note about the legislation is that it's trying to protect against abuse of animals," said San Francisco Supervisor Katy Tang, lead sponsor of the ordinance and an avid animal lover who gave up eating meat years ago.

"A parrot on a shoulder, generally speaking, they are not abusing them to make them talk," Tang said. "As long as there's no abuse involved, folks should not worry."

Tang said it's not natural for a bear to balance on a ball. And most likely, she added, that bear has been denied food, scared and tormented to train it to balance on a ball.

Los Angeles and Oakland, California, have outlawed the use of steel-tipped "bullhooks" to prod and strike elephants, and a California state senator wants to take the idea statewide.

Concern over the treatment of elephants has grown so much that Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, announced in March it would phase out elephant acts by 2018.

The San Francisco ordinance, however, will not bar the circus from coming to the Cow Palace this summer because the facility sits just outside city limits.

Feld spokesman Stephen Payne called the ordinance "completely unnecessary" and said that if animal lovers really want to root out abuse, they should lobby for more inspections.

He said legislative efforts to pass such laws are a waste of time.

The idea could continue to spread as advocates hope to take the prohibition to state and national levels.

Bruce Wagman, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in animal law, said social attitudes have shifted as more people learn how such animals are trained to perform tasks strictly for human amusement.

"When you tell somebody that what they think is a smile on a chimp is actually a 'fear grimace,' then they're not as happy seeing that on TV," he said.

Reptiles smaller than 8 feet long are not considered wild animals, and are exempt. A violation is a misdemeanor.

The Motion Picture Association of America submitted a letter opposing the ordinance, saying it would curb filming of well-treated animal performers. Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the group, declined further comment.

Susannah Greason Robbins, executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission, said she hasn't seen any productions in the city that have used exotic animals in the nearly five years she's headed the office.

"I understand the need for the ordinance to protect these animals, and I hope it won't be felt in the loss of production jobs here in San Francisco," she said.

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AP news researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.