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Campaign to End Circus Cruelty Heats Up

End Circus Cruelty's campaign gathers at the City Commission meeting in large numbers, urging city leaders to pass an ordinance banning the use of wild animals in Grand Rapids.
Two young Rapidians protesting at the September circus held at Van Andel Arena.

Two young Rapidians protesting at the September circus held at Van Andel Arena. /Kolene Allen

Two children giving speeches at the City Commission meeting in support of banning the use of wild animals for entertainment.

Two children giving speeches at the City Commission meeting in support of banning the use of wild animals for entertainment. /Ginny Mikita

Protestors and their furry loved ones showing their support to end wild-animal abuse.

Protestors and their furry loved ones showing their support to end wild-animal abuse. /Kolene Allen

We’re a nation of animal lovers, are we not? Jon Dunn and Kolene Allen, the force behind the campaign End Circus Cruelty, believe so. People care a great deal about the furry critters they feed, give a home to and insist on calling family. It’s not far fetched to assume these same citizens also love wild animals — appreciating their natural environments and their ability to fend for themselves and one another, fulfilling their need to run, play, fight and be free.

I hope you’ve heard of End Circus Cruelty. They’re attempting to pass a city ordinance, which will ban the use of wild animals for entertainment in Grand Rapids. End Circus Cruelty and its supporters participated in a 100+ person protest held at a Ringling circus in September. Peaceful animal lovers parked themselves just outside the circus entrance passing out flyers, holding signs and catching the attention of both young and old circus-goers as they awaited the opening doors.

There are currently 45 communities around the U.S. that have some kind of ban on the use of wild animals in entertainment. If the ban proposed by End Circus Cruelty were passed, Grand Rapids would be the first city in Michigan to join that list.

The campaign promoted a “call-to-action” for support from Rapidians and Grand Rapids enthusiasts to attend the Tuesday, Nov. 18 City Commission meeting, asking them to not only show up, but to speak out for the abused animals. End Circus Cruelty knew how much the city’s leaders wanted to hear from the citizens, themselves, to demonstrate what a pertinent issue this is for their residents. As Dunn reminds us, “Politics is not a spectator sport!”

If you weren’t there, you should have been! Even despite the 48-hour blizzard-like conditions, it was a turnout that noticeably grabbed the attention of and impressed our City Commissioners. More than 50 people braved the weather in support of the ban and 20 had the opportunity to share their views. Among them were people from all trades; a teacher, farmer, lawyer, an ICU medical worker and a prominent, local business owner, to name a few.

Mayor Heartwell was unable to attend the Nov. 18 meeting, but Dunn was able to address both the Mayor and the City Commissioners at the City Commission meeting on November 12.

“Grand Rapids being known as Beer City USA is great," said Dunn. "But having our city be known as one of the most humane in the country– safe for both people and animals– would be better!”

Jacqueline Gilmore passionately spoke up in support of the wild animal ban.

“If the circus was banned from Grand Rapids, our downtown business [The BOB], located directly across the street from the Van Andel, would not be affected at all," said Gilmore. "The circus really doesn’t bring in more business for us.”

A medical worker expressed her concern for the children that are exposed to diseases like tuberculosis, when they attend these events. She went on to explain that TB is only found in captive elephants, is easily contracted and spread through the air and has been transmitted to humans in the past. 

Even young children gave speeches at the Tuesday Commission meeting. They spoke of attending the circus in the past and how sad the animals appeared. One young girl vividly remembers a performing tiger being poked and provoked in a way that made her never want to go back. The children mentioned how they would much rather go to a circus where people used their bodies and talents to entertain instead of one that uses wild animals who are obviously abused in the process.

A lawyer spoke up and asked us to contemplate if Grand Rapids really should be named as one of the safest cities in the country to raise a family, while we simultaneously support inhumane “family” events that involve the abuse of wild animals.

After a dozen people spoke on the issue, Second Ward City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss asked those who came to speak in support of the wild animal ban to stand up so the committee could better gauge how many were there. When almost everyone in the room rose to their feet, “Wow!” was the response heard from a number of wide-eyed commissioners.

“It’s not typical for us to see a full room like this, and so that alone says something,” said First Ward Commissioner Dave Shaffer at the end of the meeting.

Walt Gutowski, First Ward Commissioner, told us that the speeches made him think of his late puppy and his love for animals. He expressed his appreciation to all who came out in support of the ban. Second Ward Commissioner Ruth Kelly stated that she couldn’t help but think of the children and that she truly appreciated the education and plans to do more research, herself.

Both Allen and Dunn understand this issue is a new one to take on for a lot of people, including our mayor and commissioners, but believe the campaign is really starting to earn their attention, especially after Tuesday’s meeting.

Dunn believes the majority of Americans agree that wild, performing animals are in some way abused in the process of getting them to “perform tricks.” As far as the naysayers and those who claim no evidence of abuse, Allen and Dunn believe the skillful public relations of the big-profit circus groups perpetuates these false views.

“Whenever there’s a story about the circus posted online, they have paid shills that flood the comments with positive remarks about Feld/Ringling," Dunn says. "and [they] argue with anyone who says differently.”

Instead of listening to the for-profit conglomerates or PETA, End Circus Cruelty is asking that you pay attention to the old saying, “the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” And they believe that the “middle” in this case, is where the experts are found.

“Listen to experts like people who have cared for wild animals in sanctuary settings, the independent veterinarians who understand wild animal care. Listen to scientists that have done in-depth behavioral work and understand very complex animal behaviors through observation and neuroscience. They will tell you these animals do not belong in train cars and parking lots 11-months out of the year. They will tell you that the abuse these animals go through in order to be 'trained' to perform tricks is beyond cruel and unusual,” says Dunn.

If you couldn't make it out to the last meeting, End Circus Cruelty's campaign plans to attend the Dec. 16 City Commission meeting at 7 p.m. They again are asking for your presence and support to prove to our city's leaders that they won't stop- until the cruelty does.

If the ordinance is put up for vote and passed, Allen and Dunn plan on turning their website into a guide that will aid other communities to ban the use of wild animals for entertainment in their town.

One quote in particular was shared during Nov. 18th's City Commission meeting that seemed to move everyone in the room. It was presented by a former Grand Rapids citizen who holds our city dear to her heart, and really sums up what the End Circus Cruelty campaign is trying to accomplish:

“Kindness and compassion toward all living things is a mark of a civilized society. Conversely, cruelty, whether it is directed against human beings or against animals, is not the exclusive province of any one culture or community of people. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bull fighting and rodeos are cut from the same fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent toward all life will we have learned to live well ourselves” –Cesar Chavez.


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