By Ana Mulero
Special to The Sentinel
ROCKVILLE – A revised ordinance proposal that would impose a ban on the use of certain wild and exotic animals throughout Gaithersburg garnered new support during a meeting on Dec. 16.
The city council’s proposal received mixed reactions from the get-go, with the local Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) mainly on one side of the argument and the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair on the other.
Yet the opposition has dwindled since the ordinance was introduced on Nov. 18, particularly after encouraging educational use by accredited facilities or institutions.
The revisions speak to not only the impact on domestic animals but also to safeguarding the use of the wild and exotic animals that the proposal covers for educational purposes only.
“I was moved by the passion in the majority of arguments from both sides,” Mayor Jud Ashman said of the public’s comments. “I feel there is a lot of truth and earnestness coming from both.”
The ordinance comes as the total number of animal bite reports has been steadily increasing since reaching 60 in 2014—up from 38 in 2013—and 89 in 2018. This year has seen 68 so far.
Through amendments to Sections 1 and 4-101 of its Animal and Fowl ordinance, the city seeks to improve alignment with legislation at the state and federal level that governs regulating the use of wild and exotic animals in circuses and traveling acts. The draft legislation proposes the inclusion of additional definitions, both within and outside the educational context explicitly.
Concerns that the HSUS previously raised relate to hindering educational outreach, whereas the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair cites a lack of supporting evidence. The conflict dates to HSUS’ request for the city of Gaithersburg to enact legislation similar to the bill approved by the Montgomery County Council in 2017, banning the exhibiting of certain wild animals for profit.
The proposal builds on the Montgomery County Council’s bill, which came into effect last March, on prohibiting the exhibition of wild animals in traveling acts partly by extending compromise beyond exhibitions for profit. Bill No. 23-17 also gave the Animal Control Division new enforcement authority and updated the animal cruelty provisions, but it was not applicable to Gaithersburg.
One issue at the center of the opposition to the city council’s proposal relates to the keeping of domestic farm animals in agricultural shows, including the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair.
“Staff has made several revisions to the ordinance to comply with the directions that we received” based on the comments it received during 2018, said city Attorney Lynn Board.
HSUS Chief Programs and Policy Officer Nicole Paquette said that while HSUS still does not “100% agree” with the Montgomery County Council and the Montgomery County Agricultural Fairgrounds, the society now reached an agreement at least on the species the ordinance covers.
Revisions clarify language about the exemption to stress that the city ordinance would have no impact on displaying domestic farm animals to protect the safety of the public and the animals.
A new definition of educational facilities or institutions requires that these be designed to impart knowledge about an animal’s natural habitat and behavior. This would be limited to those facilities or institutions where the animals are not required to perform any behavior that would not naturally occur in their wild state.
“This is a good compromise to meet the wishes of the council and to allow exhibitors to continue in this state so long as they’re showing the natural behaviors of these animals,” Paquette said of leveraging the 100-mile radius from Gaithersburg.
Yet the revised ordinance further provides that the facility or institution must be accredited and lists three associations through which accreditation can be obtained.
Board reported that there are currently two organizations that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, two by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and six more by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries within the 100-mile radius limitation that was set forth under the ordinance.
Montgomery County Agricultural Fair board member Mark Ryba pointed to two commenters at the Dec. 16 meeting as exhibitors against the draft.
The first argued that transporting bears for educational purposes can be stimulating. The second voiced concerns with how expensive it is to become accredited. “It’s very expensive to be accredited and I’m species-specific,” said Education and Conservation Society of Macropodidae Director Cassidy Jagger at the session.
“Just because you don’t spend thousands and thousands of dollars to become accredited does not mean that you don’t take good care of your animals, transport them properly and educate the public,” Cassidy added, though the city ordinance does not cover kangaroos or wallabies.
Board noted that there are federal and state laws regulating the transportation and humane treatment of animals. But “there is nothing on the state or federal level” that would expressly prohibit exhibitors from bringing wild and exotic animals and displaying them in a jurisdiction for any performance other what takes place in their respective natural habitats, according to Board.
It remains to be seen whether the city ordinance would run up against potential challenges with conflicting legal obligations if it were to pass in its current form. A case-by-case analysis would be needed to see whether First Amendment rights supersede what the city ordinance includes.
The main difference between the county and the city’s ordinance is that the former prohibits the use of performance animals only when the exhibition is for a fee. “We did not include that in the city’s ordinance because I think that the staff felt very strongly that we need to protect the safety of the public and the animals regardless of whether or not there was a fee that was charged to see the exhibition of the animals,” Board said. The motion for another public comment period—set to close at 5 p.m. on Jan. 24, 2020—was approved by a unanimous vote.