Denver has become the latest battleground in a fight over the treatment of exotic animals in circuses and road shows.
Residents will vote Tuesday on Initiative 100, which would ban circus companies from displaying lions, tigers, elephants and other exotic animals in their shows.
Several others cities have taken similar steps, but Denver is said to be unique in one respect.
It’s “the first major city where there is a ballot measure to ban the circuses from using animals in their acts,” said Michael Markarian, president of The Fund for Animals, a Washington, D.C.-based animal-protection organization. “It’s the first city that will let the voters decide.”
The election pits local and national animal-rights activists against Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and a coalition of prominent business and political leaders.
The initiative is the brainchild of Heather Herman, 15, of Arvada, Colo., who helped gather enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The high school sophomore and other animal-rights activists argue that the circus is inherently abusive to animals because they are trained to perform silly tricks for the public’s amusement.
“These animals spend their whole life in cages and chains being carted around the country,” said Ashley Soard, campaign director for Denver for a Cruelty-Free Circus, which is promoting the measure. “It’s all done to make a profit.”
Opponents of Initiative 100 call the circus a wholesome family event and an American tradition that dates back 150 years. They say the measure’s backers are pushing an extreme animal-rights agenda based on falsehoods and distortions.
“Ringling Bros. upholds the highest standards of animal care that are enforced through regulations at the federal, state and local levels,” said Tom Albert, vice president of government affairs for Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Bros.
If voters approve the initiative, Denver would follow in the footsteps of 16 other cities in the U.S and Canada that have banned the display of exotic animals for entertainment.
For Ringling Bros. and Denver, the stakes are high. Denver is one of the circus’s most profitable tour stops. City officials estimate that Ringling Bros. pumped $8 million into Denver’s economy last year during a two-week engagement at the Pepsi Center and Denver Coliseum.
Both sides have lined up high-profile endorsements. The Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have endorsed the campaign.
The opposition boasts a powerful coalition that includes the Denver City Council and business and civic leaders.
Backers say the initiative would not affect the Denver Zoo, Ocean Journey, the National Western Stock Show, Rodeo & Horse Show or other accredited zoos and sanctuaries. Opponents aren’t so sure.
“This was political expediency to eliminate the stock show and zoo,” said Denver City Councilman Charlie Brown. “It’s an arm-and-leg concept. If you get the circus, we know what’s next.”
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