A circus show in Utah won’t feature exotic animals for the first time

Amid community concern about its treatment of exotic animals, this year’s Jordan World Circus performance at Salt Lake County’s Equestrian Center will feature dogs, pigeons, ponies and a domesticated camel — but no tigers and elephants.

That’s a win for the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, which has been protesting the traveling show for years, calling it “outdated” and a “cruel spectacle.” Now, the organization is pushing the county to create a formal policy that would prohibit the use of wild animals in circus acts in the future.

“This is the first year we’ve actually seen some action taken, so that’s really promising,” said Jeremy Beckham, the nonprofit coalition’s executive director. And he’s hopeful the county “can find the political courage” to take the next step.

SMG, the county contractor that runs the Equestrian Center, originally denied Jordan World Circus’ request to come to the county-owned facility in South Jordan but eventually allowed the performance with an agreement last fall that the show would leave its exotic animals behind.

“It was nice that Jordan World Circus understood there were community complaints and they made that decision to move forward,” said Holly Yocom, director of Salt Lake County’s Department of Community Service, in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.

Esteban Fassio, a former circus performer and current booking agent with Jordan World Circus, said this is the only one of its shows across the state that is subject to prohibitions on exotic animals. The traveling circus has already performed in Ogden and Tooele County and has shows scheduled throughout the week in Vernal, Richfield, Farmington and Heber.

“We have had I would not say hundreds but dozens of calls with people complaining why the animals are not going to the Salt Lake Equestrian Center when we’ve been doing this for the last 20 years,” he told The Tribune. “So it looks like not everybody is on board with this.”

Fassio said ticket sales are down for the organization’s shows Tuesday and Wednesday in South Jordan and that Jordan World Circus will have to reexamine whether it makes good business sense to come back to the Equestrian Center in the future.

As the owner and operator of the facility, the county has the ability to set rules for the shows it hosts. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, for example, recently approved a policy requiring gun shows in county-owned facilities to conduct federal background checks on anyone attempting to purchase a firearm.

Yocom said a policy prohibiting the use of wild animals in circus acts could be approved through legislation from the County Council or an executive order from the county mayor’s office, which has been looking into the issue for a few months.

“The mayor is basically interested in looking at both sides of how this would impact the county and then we look to our legal team to tell us what avenues are available and from there we’ll make a decision going forward,” she said, noting that a decision is expected “sooner rather than later.”

County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw, who’s also the Mountain West regional director for Best Friends Animal Society, said he would be supportive of legislation to prohibit wild animal performances.

“We of course want to promote family-friendly events at our facilities, but I think in this case, the national trend has been the acceptance that using exotic and nonnative animals in the way they’re used for circuses really is considered cruel,” he said.

The Utah Animal Rights Coalition has reached out to most of the other counties that are hosting performances this year but hasn’t heard back from most, Beckham said.

The group held a protest at the circus’ Orem show last week and had planned a demonstration at the South Jordan show before learning the exotic animals would not be allowed there. Now, coalition members plan to attend the Salt Lake County Council meeting on Tuesday to express their support for a ban on wild animal circus performances.

“If the county took action to pass an ordinance, this would kind of permanently solve the problem,” Beckham said. “So we thought it was more important to sort of strike while the iron is hot, I guess you could say.”

Likely to come up during public comment are some specific practices a member of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition documented and publicized at the circus’ recent Tooele County performance — including a caged tiger that appeared to be in psychological distress and a handler’s use of a “bullhook,” a rod used to train elephants that has a blunt or pointed hook resembling a fireplace poker.

Those practices, and particularly the use of the bullhook, have “no place in any venue owned and operated by Salt Lake County,” the organization wrote in a petition urging the governmental body to take action.

“These animals deserve to live the rest of their lives in a wildlife sanctuary that closely approximates their natural habitats,” the petition continues. “It’s abusive to cart them from city to city, confine them to small metal cages and strike them with metal bullhooks.’”

Fassio disputed claims that the show’s animals are treated poorly, noting that trainers do use bullhooks but that it “is the only way to guide the elephant.” Industry experts are working on ways that are less stressful for the animals, he said.

Last summer, the board of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums voted to phase out the use of bullhooks in standard elephant care and training by the beginning of next year, in an effort to reflect modern zoological practices, according to the Washington Post. Nearly 80% of zoos associated with the accrediting organization said they were already using alternatives to bullhooks.

In addressing concerns about the cages, Fassio said in general terms that the show does use enclosures to transport animals but said they are released once they get to their destination.

“They have to travel some way,” he said. “How are you going to make an animal go on the road if you don’t put them in a cage?”

Amid changing standards for exotic animals around the world and battles across the country with animal activists like the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, Fassio said he thinks it’s only a matter of time before the circus “runs out of animals to perform.”

Those pressures were among the challenges that led to the closure in 2017 of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which had removed its elephants from the show the year prior after complaints from activists who said forcing animals to perform was cruel and unnecessary.

“It has become a fight,” Fassio said. “It’s not even becoming something for people to learn about the circus and the animals. They’re just fighting, you know? Over and over. And yeah, the circus is losing. And we understand that.”