By GREGORY FOLEY and GREG MOORE
Express Staff Writers
It might soon be illegal to bring circus elephants, lions and tigers into the city of Ketchum, and if a group of Sage School student activists are successful, eventually anywhere in Blaine County.
Ketchum City Council members voted unanimously on Monday to take the first step in approving an amendment to city code to prohibit in city limits the use of exotic and non-domesticated animals in traveling circuses and exhibitions. Council members approved a first reading of the amendment after a presentation in support of the change by five students from the Sage School in Hailey. The council typically adopts new legislation after three public readings.
The five students—symbolically bound together in rope that simulated circus chains—read a prepared statement to the council while a video played showing various species of exotic wildlife being abused by people. One by one, the students made statements that they said were “based on science and fact.”
“[Baby elephants] are tied down with whips and chains,” one student said.
The group told the council that lions and tigers in circuses are confined in small cages 99 percent of the time. They said circus elephants—which are sometimes beaten and prodded with heavy bull hooks—live to be an average of 14 years old, while elephants in the wild live to be 70.
The students made the point that unlike domestic animals, which have been bred to interact with humans, trained wild animals must be forced into submission.
“There’s no such thing as a domestic elephant,” said Evathea Drougas, 15.
“We don’t want the circuses to use kids as an excuse to abuse animals.”
Addressing the claim that children want to see performing animals in circuses, Will Griffith, 13, said, “We don’t want the circuses to use kids as an excuse to abuse animals.”
The students advocated that circuses use only human performers, as does Cirque du Soleil.
The effort was led by Ketchum resident Maya Burrell, who said in an interview that it was part of the school’s independent student projects. Burrell said she is not a teacher at the school, but was asked to organize the elephant project due to her interest in the issue.
Burrell told the council that abuse of circus elephants is not just an issue of ethics, but of public safety. She said many captive elephants develop transmittable tuberculosis and have sometimes killed people in episodes of rage.
Councilman Jim Slanetz said he thinks residents would not be losing anything if the city adopted such a restriction.
“We’re not hurting our community by doing this, in any shape or form,” he said.
Councilman Baird Gourlay said he believes it is part of city leaders’ mission to take a stand on important issues.
“If a small community like ours can’t make a statement like this, then why are we elected officials?” he said.
City Attorney Stephanie Bonney noted that the state does have a law against animal abuse, which provides for misdemeanor charges for the first two offenses and a felony charge for the third offense. She also noted that the proposed code amendment provides exemptions for camels, bison and llamas, and would not limit rodeos.
The proposed amendment will be reviewed a second time at a future meeting.
On Tuesday, the students took their presentation to the Blaine County commissioners, where they also got a favorable reception. The commissioners did not immediately vote to adopt the proposed amendment to county ordinance, but instructed Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves to research the issue and determine whether the amendment would conflict with state law.
“I really commend you and the other school groups who have done their research and learned how the process works,” Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said.
In an interview, Burrell said the students are scheduled to make presentations before the Sun Valley City Council on May 1 and the Hailey City Council on May 5. She said she had not yet contacted the Bellevue and Carey councils.
Circuses exhibiting trained wild animals appeared in Carey in 2011 and in Hailey in 2013.