Politics & Government

Illinois banned elephants in traveling animal acts in 2017. Will more animals follow?

At the Rainbow Ranch about 7.5 miles west Nashville, Alan Blumhorst, has about 250 animals scattered about his 100-acre farm. He opens one door, and for nearly 40 seconds a mixture of goats and sheep come streaming out of one barn like they were leaving a clown car.

Roaming around the farm, sectioned off by swinging fences and barns with wooden sliding doors, are llamas, donkeys, horses, fallow deer, swans, peacocks, alpacas, exotic cattle and a camel.

Blumhorst also owns a red kangaroo, which he is keeping with a friend in Missouri.

He plans to get a baby zebra this year to replace Zeke the Zebra, who died at the age of 15.

Blumhorst who hosts school groups at his farm, will travel with 20 to 30 of his animals in a 8-foot by 20-foot trailer to set up a petting zoo at schools, festivals or even senior living facilities. The furthest he’ll travel is four hours to six hours to make sure the animals are comfortable. Traveling to set up petting zoos represents about a third of his business.

But if a piece of state legislation goes through, he may no longer have the option to bring some animals with him.

Two bills have been introduced in the Illinois legislature that aim to build off of the ban of using elephants in circuses or other traveling animal acts enacted in 2017.

A proposal in the state Senate would call for banning bears, cougars, giraffes, gray and red kangaroos, hippopotamuses, jaguars, leopards, lions, non-human primates, rhinoceroses, tapirs, tigers and zebras, from being used in traveling animal acts, such as circuses, petting zoos.

The state Senate’s Agriculture Committee discussed the proposal recently, but postponed moving the bill forward as negotiations on the legislation take place, said Deb McCarver, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, the bill’s sponsor.

Blumhorst said he normally doesn’t travel with the kangaroo, but he might bring the baby zebra with him to locations for about six months to a year, before it gets too big.

“I am here fighting for everyone else who has those animals,” Blumhorst said. “Whether I agree or not, I’m afraid that’s just the start of it ... They’re going to add the camels I travel with, and the donkeys doing Nativity scenes. You can’t have a Nativity without a camel or donkey. It’s the slippery slope of what’s going to be added next year.”

A version introduced in the House calls for banning the use of exotic animals including camels, antelope, anteaters, water buffalo, and yaks that were foreign born or of foreign origin. However that version has been tabled by House sponsor state Rep. Camille Lilly, D-Chicago, according to the General Assembly’s website.

Lilly could not be reached for comment.

Blumhorst understands the appeal of trying to get rid of the bad operators that may be in the industry, but he wants to see a different approach.

He would want the state to ban operators from traveling if they have been cited by the United States Department of Agriculture for multiple violations during a certain time period.

“If we use that as a criteria in keeping them from traveling, then the bad actors won’t be able travel,” Blumhorst said.

“I work my butt off to make sure all my critters are good and taken care of and I’m not letting anything slide,” Blumhorst added.

He wants to see operators to have a good standing with the USDA.

The legislation would not affect a stationary facility, such as a zoo or animal sanctuary.

Support from the Humane Society

Among the organizations to push for the state Senate version of the legislation is the Humane Society of the United States.

“The one in the House is very broad,” said Debbie Leahy, manager of Captive Wildlife Protection at the Humane Society of the United States. “The Senate version (is) limited species and these are species that have an especially hard time spending life in the road and in some cases really pose an unacceptable level of risk to the public.”

“(Animals) are not given a lot of space, and life on the road means they don’t have access to things like emergency veterinary care,” Leahy added.

Legislators might take out some of the animals including zebras and kangaroos as part of negotiations to accommodate objections from exhibitors, Leahy said.

“There are still plenty of animals that aren’t on this list that these traveling shows can continue to exhibit and I don’t think there’s anything entertaining or educational about seeing a miserable tiger locked in a small cage on display at a county fair,” Leahy said.

She said some circuses are now including animatronics and puppets as way of adjusting to having shows without having wildlife.

Nearby traveling animal acts

Leahy was particularly critical of Woody’s Menagerie, which is based in Mulberry Grove in Southern Illinois east of Greenville, citing multiple infractions noted by USDA inspectors.

“It’s very frustrating he’s still in a licensed exhibitor,” Leahy said.

Gregg Woody, the owner of the Woody’s Menagerie said he has never been found guilty of criminal violations and said his cages exceed the size requirements set forth by the USDA. Woody brings his animals, which include lions, tigers and bears, to shows such as at schools and festivals.

“If we don’t do what we do, some of these kids would never have a chance to see some of these animals,” Woody said.

He also said he is frustrated with USDA inspectors because enforcement sometimes isn’t consistent.

He was written up in June 2017, changed nothing and the same inspector showed up and he wasn’t written up a year later.

Woody also settled some allegations from the USDA by agreeing to pay an $8,000 settlement to the agency.

“They have hard inspectors with private agendas,” Woody said.

Woody says he does care for the animals he displays and says he treats them well, which helps for good shows and trips.

“The animal has to be happy and content for it to be a good show for the public and for us, and the animal,” Woody said. “If the public doesn’t have the chance to see these animals, they won’t care about them.”

He says because he travels, he has a lot more inspections. If he didn’t travel, there wouldn’t be as many checks on him.

“Would it change what they’re trying to solve?” Woody said referring to the legislation. “No. it would actually make things worse.”

One local circus that had animals in the past was the local Ainad Shriners circus, who put on the annual show. This year’s show are scheduled for June in the metro-east, and the acts are still being planned said Michael Strohm, administrator for the Shriners.

“We’ve had (animals) in the past, but that’s the past,” Strohm said.

The local group is calling their event the “Circus of Thrills,” but the acts are not finalized. However, on the website, the circus is promoting Castle’s Performing Bears, as one of the acts, with the disclaimer that “Acts are subject to change and vary per location.”

Strohm did not wish to comment on the proposed legislation.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has not worked directly on the legislation proposed in Illinois, but supports the effort.

“It would help other wild animals who suffer tremendously in the circus, such as bears and tigers, all these animals that are forced to perform under threat of punishment and intimidation,” said John Di Leonardo, PETA’s manager of animals in entertainment.

He said there animals shouldn’t be beaten or cramped in box cars in order to have them perform.

“Wild animals are not ours for entertainment,” Di Leonardo said.

Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referenda.