ROCKVILLE – There may be fewer animals to see at next summer’s Montgomery County Agricultural Fair.
On Nov. 18, Gaithersburg City Councilmembers introduced an ordinance that would prohibit exhibiting wild animals in traveling acts and circuses.
Unless an animal lives in a permanent place, like a zoo or education center, it may not be allowed to come to the fair, which has been a highlight of the summer for many county families.
The city is considering amending its Animal and Fowl ordinance to make it more in line with the county’s animal ordinances, which bans the use of wild animals in circuses.
“This issue has been going on for a while,” said Lynn Board, city attorney.
The proposed ordinance would end the exhibition of a performance animal in a traveling act but would allow domestic and farm animals to participate in fairs as long as it is for educational purposes.
The idea to prohibit traveling circuses in Gaithersburg began several years ago with a request by the U.S. Humane Society and not from any problems encountered at the annual fair.
Board noted that there had not been any incidents of animal abuse or injury to fairgoers in the past several years. However, in the early 1990s, a member of the city’s planning and code administration reportedly saw an elephant that was on a short chain with very little drinking water. That city employee spoke with the animal’s handler at that time.
A public hearing will be held Dec. 16, but during the public comment section of the Nov. 18 meeting, many residents spoke passionately both for and against the proposed ordinance.
Nicole Paquette, chief programs and policy officer at the U.S. Humane Society, called the proposed ordinance “much needed.”
Referring to circuses and other events where animals perform, Paquette said, “It’s apparent that life in these shows is nothing but misery for them. These animals are trained with pain and fear of punishment.”
The animals “are caged and chained in trucks and trailers and carted all across the country,” she said. “They are forced to perform tricks” and threatened with such items as bullhooks, whips and chains.
“This is truly a life of misery,” Paquette said.
She noted that the ordinance allows members of 4-H clubs to show their animals, which is a big part of the agricultural fair.
Emily Spivak, director of the state’s Human Society, called the use of performing animals “archaic” and “inherently cruel. These animals are trained with pain and punishment.”
However, Carl Hobbs, president of the Montgomery County Agricultural Center, called the ordinance “an unnecessary, unwarranted attack on the fair’s operation.”
It will erode the fair’s educational component, he said.
Dan Leaman, a board member of the agriculture fair, also spoke out strongly against the ordinance. He noted there are county and state welfare codes that handle such problems and that he was not aware of any abuse that had occurred at the fair.
The data indicates that most animal complaints revolve around dog bites, another audience member said.
“There is no rationale” for the ordinance, said Mark Ryba, a board member of the fair. He called the abuses that the law deals with “a non-existent problem.”
One audience member who worked with 4-H for many years said, “I’ve never seen any abuse. I’ve never seen any issues with that.”
What people experience at the fair “is a valuable, valuable lesson for kids to learn,” he said.
Before voting on the ordinance, councilmembers agreed to research how much of a financial impact it would have, if any, upon the annual agricultural fair and any other events held at the fairgrounds on Perry Parkway.
They also agreed to investigate how it would affect special educational programs, like the National Zoo bringing in wild animals for a program.
To accommodate programs from the National Zoo, the council is considering limiting how far away an animal can travel for a program, for instance, up to 100 miles, thereby exempting the zoo in Washington, D.C.