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Local campaign seeks to ban use of wild animals in entertainment

Jon Dunn and Kolene Allen are petitioning Grand Rapids and Walker city governments to disallow use of wild animals in circuses and traveling shows.

The Petition

The "End Circus Cruelty In Grand Rapids" campaign hopes to collect 5,000 signatures on their online petition before the end of the summer. 

A local coalition, “End Circus Cruelty in Grand Rapids,” is seeking 5,000 signatures on their petition calling for an ordinance that would outlaw the use of wild animals for entertainment in both Grand Rapids and Walker. 

The group was founded by a local couple, Jon Dunn and Kolene Allen, who run the website Vegan Grand Rapids together. The issue of wild animals being used in entertainment came to their attention in March 2014, after the Saladin Shrine Circus visited to the city. They started the petition shortly after, and received more than 750 signatures online in the first week. The petition currently has nearly 1,100 signatures. 

“Our goal is to get 5,000 signatures by the end of summer,” says Allen. “Ringling comes back to town in September. We want to work with Grand Rapids for Animals, who have been doing the circus demonstrations for over 10 years, to put on the biggest circus protest that Grand Rapids has ever seen.”

If the group doesn't reach their goal of 5,000 signatures, they still plan to deliver the petition to city commissioners in the hopes of showing that constituents care about the issue. They chose to aim for 5,000 signatures because they felt it was both attainable and an adequate number to demonstrate constituents' interest. 

“What we would like to see is an ordinance that would cover all animals in all entertainment,” Dunn says. “It's not a circus ban. The circus is welcome to come, just without the animals.”

One example Allen gives is an alligator-wrestling sideshow that would have been featured at Rock the Rapids 2012, until organizers canceled the act due to complaints from fans. She also names Cirque du Soleil as an alternative to traveling shows featuring wild animals. 

Permanent accredited exhibitions like zoos and other entities such as animal control agencies, sanctuaries, researchers, educational institutions and wildlife rehabilitators would be exempt from the proposed ordinance. Dunn suggests the John Ball Zoo as a more educational and humane alternative for Grand Rapids residents looking for an opportunity to see wild animals. 

“I work for an animal welfare organization focused on dogs and cats, and we train our animals using positive reinforcement,” says Dunn, who works for Best Friends Animal Society. “But there's no positive way to train a lion. A lion is not trainable like your dog. You can't get tigers to jump through hoops without being whipped. And an elephant can't naturally sit on a stool. They have to forcibly get them there in very painful ways.”

“If we treated our dogs and cats the way we treat elephants in the circus, there would be public outcry and we'd be thrown in jail,” Allen says. “It would be illegal to lock your dog in a cage for 11 months out of the year and only let it out to perform tricks, [and to] barely feed it and whip it.”

The co-founders say that public health and safety are also primary concerns of their campaign, citing Born Free USA's database of 110 circus animal incidents since 1990. The most recent occurred in St. Louis on March 23, 2014, when three elephants escaped from the Moolah Shrine Circus and damaged cars in a parking lot.

“That could so easily happen in downtown Grand Rapids, in the middle of ArtPrize, with 300,000 people here,” Dunn says. 

The group also points to incidents of circus elephants carrying tuberculosis, categorized as a zoonotic disease, which means that it can be transferred from animals to humans. 

Dunn says that although he knows there are currently many serious issues for the city to tackle, he believes that categorizing the importance of issues is not productive. 

“Hunger, homelessness, education- there are tons of problems facing Grand Rapids today,” he says. “But passing this ordinance doesn't mean that it's more important than any of those other issues. We as a city ought to be able to work on more than one issue.” 

Forty communities across the country have enacted ordinances similar to the type of ban that the “End Circus Cruelty in Grand Rapids” campaign is calling for. But if Grand Rapids were to join them, it would be the first community in Michigan to do so. 

“This is the kind of leadership Grand Rapids should be displaying,” Dunn says. “We like to think of ourselves as leaders in West Michigan and we like to think of ourselves as a progressive community. I can't really think of a better way for us to show it than this kind of ordinance.”

In spite of the hurdles in their path, and the many goals still to be accomplished by the campaign, Allen remains optimistic.

“I think that Grand Rapids is the kind of community where it's easy to get involved,” she says. “Grand Rapids is a big city, but it has a small community of people who are doing important things. The government and commissioners are very receptive. That's why I know we can make it happen.”

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