Animal advocates like myself are hoping that the shuttering of Ringling Brothers sounds the death knell for the traditional circus industry. Opposition to circuses that use animals is on the upswing, and the City of Delaware recently became the first city in the state of Ohio to ban circuses with exotic animals. The new ordinance alone is great but the story behind it is even more incredible. The new law is all thanks to the work of two women, Beth Keener and Shelly Emans. Starting with a petition initiated by Beth, they organized the successful campaign aimed at the city council to prohibit circuses with exotic animal. I spoke with Beth and Shelly to learn more.
Beth is not a professional animal advocate. Far from it. She works full-time, owns a clothing business, and is the mother of a toddler. She wasn’t involved in circus animal advocacy until she happened to see a flier for a traveling circus coming to her hometown. Beth remembers, “My stomach turned.” She immediately went into action because all she could “think about was how in the world could a town that is so incredibly citizen focused allow such animal abuse to be seen as ‘entertainment’?”
Beth started an online petition and got in touch with two advocates with more experience, Shelly Emans and Julie McDonough. Shelly already had documentation and research about the cruelty that animals endure in circuses. But she is also not a professional animal advocate. Shelly works at non-profits that focus on community outreach and the less fortunate. But she’s organized numerous animal advocacy events over the years including protests against circuses, trophy hunting, the Taji dolphin drives, and the annual March for Elephants and Rhinos.
The process required many meetings and multiple re-writes of the ordinance but eventually it became law. Beth believes that one of the most persuasive arguments was public safety. The advocates pointed out to councilmembers that “local law enforcement would never be trained or prepared should a wild animal get loose.” Using arguments outside of animal protection is a powerful tool. Oftentimes, there are multiple benefits to animal protection bills. For example, breed-neutral dangerous dog laws are more effective than laws attempting to ban pit bull terriers and less expensive for cities to enforce. These arguments can sway the votes of legislators uninterested in animal protection.
The women were well-organized and delivered a strong, multi-pronged case against circus animals. Shelly remembers, “We presented three very different perspectives on why we felt the circus needed to be banned. In addition, we also had an amazing guest join us in presenting and multiple letters and emails to the council members from a variety of animal welfare groups.” Demonstrating community support behind an effort is crucial, not just from organizations but average citizens.
Their story proves that a few determined people can make a difference for animals. Oftentimes, people feel powerless and unable to effectively contribute to causes they care about. The path can be difficult but it can be done, especially at the local level. Check out Attorney at Paw for more resources on passing ordinances.
Beth offers a little extra encouragement to advocates. “I had to do something. I couldn’t sit back and complain about the circus coming to town, without being able to say I tried…If you are passionate about something, speak out.” Shelly adds, “You don’t have to be smart or brave to fight for them. Love and compassion is all you need.”
It doesn’t require specialized skills to advocate for animals at the local level. It just takes persistence. If you’re interested in working on an ordinance in your own community, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Holtz is For All Animals’ director of legislative affairs. She is an animal rights attorney and lifelong animal advocate. Liz manages For All Animals’ coalition efforts to pass state laws that protect animals—like strengthening anti-cruelty laws—and defeating laws that harm animals—like ag-gag laws. She also oversees For All Animals’ Attorney at Paw program, which provides assistance to advocates interested in passing laws and ordinances that protect animals on a local level.