Animals and Politics: Traveling Exotic Animal Ban Reintroduced

by Michelle C. Pardo

On May 21, 2019 Representatives Raul M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and David Schweikert (R-AZ) introduced the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act (TEAPSPA), a bill that would amend the federal Animal Welfare Act to prohibit the use of exotic and wild animals, including lions, tigers and elephants, in traveling performances.  The bill had previously been introduced in 2017. The bill does not apply to domestic or farm animals or nonmobile, permanent zoo and aquarium facilities that are accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).  Such facilities that have animal ambassador programs, such as those that travel to schools and events for educational purposes, would also be exempt from the prohibitions of the bill provided the animals involved do not travel for more than six months in any year, and are not kept in a mobile or traveling housing facility for more than 12 hours in any day.  The bill also exempts, among others, university research operations and animals performing in TV and film (as long as not before a live audience).  Rodeos have their own categorical exemption.  Arizona (the bill co-sponsors’ home state) is home to the annual World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo in the United States.

State laws across the nation already prevent animal cruelty, and the United States Department of Agriculture is tasked with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.  Exhibitors, such as circuses, zoos and other animal facilities, are inspected by the USDA for compliance with the Act.  Proponents of the bill, and the text of the bill itself, claim that the existing federal agency oversight of traveling animals acts is costly, problematic and unmanageable and tout the bill as a cost savings to the American taxpayer.  Opponents of the bill view this as yet another incremental prohibition of animal exhibition designed to eliminate any animal held by a zoo, aquarium, or wildlife park — a key agenda of many animal rights groups.  Other exhibitors object to the bill’s exemptions as being too narrow, as other reputable accreditation and certification organizations exist that focus on evaluating animal welfare.

Laws banning certain species from performing are not new — many already exist at the state and local level.  Such laws have been criticized because they were enacted at the urging of animal rights organizations who dominated the political process, or pushed by legislators who relied on outmoded video or antiquated animal welfare practices to argue that every exhibitor provides the same type of animal care.  TEAPSPA text also contains many of the animal rights “talking points” that have influenced prior state and local legislation.

TEAPSPA is premised on the belief that any traveling, exotic animal is subjected to inhumane and abusive conditions and inadequate mobile facilities, and that all animals present a risk of serious harm to animal handlers and the general public.  The bill presumes that all exhibitors are created equal, and that anyone engaged in an operation that travels with animals is inherently made up of animal abusers that have no regard for the health and well-being of its animals.  The bill also states that using exotic or wild animals in traveling performances “adds nothing to the understanding and conservation of such animals and their natural environment, and actually undermines conservation efforts necessary to protect threatened and endangered species.”  Most zoological facilities across the country, however, view the public’s ability to view, learn about, and experience animals first hand as the best way to promote conservation and protection of threatened and endangered species.

Vocal supporters of the bill include animal activist group Animal Defenders International (ADI) and other sanctuaries that stand to gain animals if exhibitors are forced to retire them from exhibition because ownership is no longer feasible.

For more on federal, state and local legislation aimed toward animal exhibitors and exotic animal travel bans, check out “Elephant in the Capitol”, our recent podcast interview on Zoo Logic — a weekly podcast with animal trainer, zoo advocate, and Zoomility author Dr. Grey Stafford.