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Exotic animals banned from circuses in Charlotte NC

Elephants, lions, tigers and other exotic animals are now forbidden in circuses that perform in Charlotte.

City Council took the unexpected step late Monday of banning exotic animal displays and performances in circuses. The measure essentially ends visits to Charlotte by the type of large circuses the public is most accustomed to paying to see.

A line item on the council agenda proposed prohibiting handlers from using whips, bullhooks and other devices on their elephants, tigers, lions and all other exotic beasts during performances.

Such devices are a form of pain and cruelty, animal rights activists told the council during a 1 1/2-hour discussion.

About 25 people spoke about the issue before the council, with most urging a full ban on exotic animals in circuses.

“We are extremely disappointed that the city continues to prioritize the desires of one non-NC business over the health and safety of its citizens and the welfare of vulnerable, endangered animals,” North Carolina Voters for Animal Welfare posted on Facebook before the council meeting.

Universoul Circus elephant
Makia, a 4-ton African elephant, lends a trunk as workers prepare to raise the UniverSoul Circus Big Top tent at Freedom Mart Shopping Center in west Charlotte in November 2009. Charlotte City Council on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, banned exotic animals, such as elephants, from circus acts in the city. TODD SUMLIN Observer file photo

The animal welfare group was referring to UniverSoul Circus. The circus didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment from The Charlotte Observer on Tuesday, but it has said in the past that it treats its animals well.

In February 2020, when the issue first came before the council, Benjamin Johnson of UniverSoul said the circus had “done our best over the years to represent the good actors of the business,” WSOC-TV reported at the time. “For us to be thrown into a pool of bad actors like this is not fair at all.”

In the end, council member Matt Newton proposed expanding the council’s original line item. Under the measure approved Monday, non-exotic animals are still allowed in circuses, but circuses predominantly use exotic animals.

The measure passed by a 6-4 vote.

What animals did Charlotte ban in circuses?

Exotic animals in circuses that visit Charlotte. Such animals include elephants, lions and tigers.

What animals are not banned?

Dogs, cats and horses. They are not considered exotic animals by city ordinance.

Elephant walk
The Grand Animal Walk of The Greatest Show On Earth heads into uptown Charlotte on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. The annual event heralds the arrival of the 142nd Edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Ringling shut down in 2017. Charlotte City Council on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, banned exotic animals, such as elephants, from any circuses performing in the city. TODD SUMLIN Observer file photo

How long has Charlotte studied an exotic animals ban?

Since early 2020, following years of protests locally and nationwide by animal welfare groups, the Observer reported at the time.

In May 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shut down operations after 146 years, citing an unsustainable business model, The New York Times reported in January 2017.

In August 2019, UniverSoul Circus, which touted a culture of “unity, inclusion and diversity,” made its “triumphant return” to Charlotte, according to a press release.

PETA staged multiple protests ahead of the group’s performances here, situating a “nude zebra” — a naked individual in zebra body paint — in uptown as an attack against UniverSoul’s use of zebras, elephants and other animals.

In this image provided by animal rights activist Kristen Moyer, protesters rally before Charlotte City Council first considered banning wild and exotic animals from circuses in early 2020. The council approved a ban on Dec. 14, 2021. Courtesy of Kristen Moyer

When does the ban start?

City officials haven’t said.

What other NC city has a similar ban?

Asheville, which banned wild and exotic animals from circuses in the city in 2015, the (Asheville) Citizen Times reported at the time.

Staff Writer Hannah Smoot contributed.

This story was originally published December 14, 2021 12:23 PM.

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Joe Marusak has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1989 covering the people, municipalities and major news events of the region, and was a news bureau editor for the paper. He currently reports on breaking news.