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Shrine Circus entering its 69th _ and perhaps last _ year

August 25, 2018
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FILE – In this May 24, 2016, file photo, clowns Ron "Jingles" Wassel, left, of Creighton, Pa., and Jeff "Kit Kat" Cox, right, of Eighty Four, Pa., who perform in an annual fundraising circus presented by Pittsburgh's Syria Shriners fraternal organization, hold signs to express opposition to a proposed city ordinance that would ban the use of wild animals in performances, including circuses, while standing in front of the Pittsburgh City-County Building in Pittsburgh. Organizers of the 2018 fundraising circus from Friday through Sunday, Sept. 14 to 16, 2018, fear a revised animal treatment law approved by Pittsburgh City Council on Dec. 19, 2017, could mark the end for the 69-year-old Shriners' event. (Darrell Sapp /Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP, File)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Just less than a month to go before Pittsburgh’s annual Shrine Circus, fans are snapping up tickets quicker than usual.

It’s not only because Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey shut down last year, leaving big-top faithful without the famous traveling show. It’s that September could mark an end for the 69-year-old Shriners’ event, too, organizer Paul Leavy said.

“We just don’t know,” the longtime circus chairman said last week.

About 30,000 people turn out for five shows over three days, the biggest single fundraiser for the Syria Shrine. An animal treatment law passed by city council in December jeopardizes the circus, where animals remain the No. 1 attraction, Leavy said.

Specifically, the regulation bans using any painful instruments, or instruments that could be painful, on or around wild and exotic animals. Circus insurance carriers require the presence of bullhooks — a pointed hook atop a long handle — around elephants, although only as guides, according to the Shriners.

Such conflict could leave the group with a few options: Convert to an animal-free circus, which Leavy said would likely fail; attempt to relocate the event out of Pittsburgh; or close it down. The group has argued a shutdown would devastate its fundraising.

Mayor Bill Peduto urged Shriners to continue their tradition, but without “instruments that cause pain and injury to the animals they use as entertainment.” Other states and cities have passed similar rules without triggering a complete shutdown of Shrine circuses, he said.

“The use of animals as entertainment globally is not a growing industry,” Peduto said. He signed the city rule on animal treatment. The council vote was 6-3.

Similar regulations have taken effect in California, Rhode Island and elsewhere. The Shrine Circus in Los Angeles announced in 2014 that it would drop animal acts. In West Springfield, Mass., the Melha Shrine Circus said in 2017 that it would reinstate the acts after eliminating them — and losing attendance and money — a year earlier.

Probably more than half of circuses have given up animals over tighter rules for treatment, said Jan Biggerstaff, president at the Circus Fans Association of America. She estimated more than 30 circus groups travel the country.

“There are several shows going out making a living, paying performers, making a profit and traveling” without animals, Biggerstaff said. “People are disappointed, of course, especially if last year (the shows) came with animals and this year they don’t. People don’t understand what has happened.”

Longtime circus-goer Sherrin Lynn Kuzel, 41, said her son Andy, 10, who is on the autism spectrum, is particularly captivated by the lights, tricks and animals at the Shrine Circus.

“To see a special-needs child smile and have fun from start to finish, that’s something that is so precious,” said Kuzel, of White Oak. Activists for animal rights “have arguments — they do,” but she believes the circus offers “more good than bad.”

“I don’t think (activists) are looking at the whole picture,” Kuzel said. ” ... In my theory, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Leave it alone.”

Still, switching away from old-fashioned animal attractions can open greater fundraising options through Cirque du Soleil-type performances, said Natalie Ahwesh, vice president at Humane Action Pittsburgh. The coalition lobbied council for the city rule.

“There’s many things that might have been tradition 100 years ago that are not acceptable now, and this is one of those things,” Ahwesh said of bullhooks and related tools. “We are completely supportive of (Shriners’) right to fund-raise and to fund-raise with the circus, but animals should not be hurt in that process.”

Shriners maintain that animals at their circus don’t face pain or harm. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James granted them a one-time exception to the city rule, allowing the circus to go on Sept. 14-16 at PPG Paints Arena as the group fights the law in court. Court-approved monitors are slated to observe animal treatment at the event; advertised attractions include thrill acts, a “singing pig,” ″the world’s smallest elephant” and Spider-Man.

Proceeds from ticket sales flow to the fraternal organization, which helps support nonprofit Shriners Hospitals for Children and related care, Leavy said. He didn’t immediately share fundraising tallies from the circus. Shriners International headquarters in Florida did not respond to a request for comment.

Cultural historian and biographer Linda Simon, who wrote the book “The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus,” said the tradition is still viable. Featuring animals is a challenge largely because of public sentiment, protests and transportation and insurance costs, she said.

The future appears to be in smaller circuses — more like 19th-century European events, with clowns and acrobats, Simon said. Children today can see animals through the internet, movies and other media, she said.

“They don’t need, the way they did in the 19th century, to go to a circus to see an elephant because they’ve never seen one,” Simon said. “There’s not the kind of cultural pressure to provide animals as part of a circus.”

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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