There was no elephant in the hearing room where lawmakers mulled new restrictions on circus acts Tuesday, but the animal was addressed by advocates for and against legislation filed by two North Shore lawmakers.
While Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will hold its final show in Providence, R.I. this weekend after ending its elephant act and experiencing a "dramatic drop" in ticket sales, smaller circuses continue to use the largest living land mammal in their performances.
The Melha Shrine Circus attempted to put on a show without animal acts last year and for the first time since its 1963 inception it lost money, according to the Eastern States Exposition, which houses the circus on its West Springfield property.
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The circus - which is underway this week - raises money for the Shriners in western Massachusetts, which touts its show as "quality, affordable, wholesome entertainment in a safe environment." The shrine is part of a "philanthropic fraternity based on fun, fellowship and the Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief and truth."
In addition to Human Cannonball Shawn Marren, the Melha Shrine Circus this year promises acts by The Hamid Elephants, The Vincent Von Duke Tigers and Neecha Braun and her Amazing Dobermans.
Legislation filed by Marblehead Rep. Lori Ehrlich and Newburyport Sen. Kathleen O'Connor Ives would bar elephant acts in traveling shows in Massachusetts, ending a practice that Ehrlich said forces animals to stand in their own excrement, endure abuse and causes them to become aggressive.
Ehrlich told the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture that the "unnatural tricks" performed by elephants at circuses teach children that they can "exploit and mistreat animals for amusement and profit."
"I think people are realizing that maybe a circus is not the best entertainment for their family," Ehrlich said.
Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, argued in written testimony that the legislation (S 1898/ H 418) would harm responsible operators.
"The Eastern States Exposition feels strongly that the abuse of any animal should never be tolerated," Cassidy wrote. "However, the aim of these bills to prohibit the exhibition of properly cared for and humanely trained animals does not prevent abuse, but rather unnecessarily restricts the ability of the public to view elephants at shows throughout the commonwealth."
According to a fact sheet provided by Ehrlich, the municipalities of Braintree, Cambridge, Quincy, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Provincetown, Revere, Somerville and Weymouth have all "passed legislation addressing the abuse of wild animals in circuses."
The fact-sheet also claims that elephant tricks such as headstands and hind-leg stands cause joint and muscle stress on the animals.