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Council Quickies: City Passes Ban on Displaying Exotic Animals in Charlotte

Meeting notes from Dec. 13, 2021

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What happened: Charlotte City Council met for a business meeting on Monday night, with the hottest topic being a potential change to the ordinance regarding the treatment of exotic animals at circuses. The matter was originally brought in front of council in 2016, and has since been deferred multiple times. While Monday’s agenda called for a proposal to either ban or limit certain tools such as whips and bullhooks that animal handlers use to train and discipline animals, the night took a surprising turn when Matt Newton introduced a new motion to fully ban the use of any circus animals for performance or display reasons in Charlotte city limits and it passed.

What’s next: UniverSoul Circus, which is the main event that this ban targets, will still be able to perform in Charlotte, they will just have to limit the animals they bring with them to non-exotic ones like dogs and horses. Of course, they could always just find a space outside of Charlotte but in the area to begin holding shows in as well. Next week’s zoning meeting scheduled for Dec. 20 will be the last Charlotte City Council meeting of 2021.


Exotic Animal Public Hearing

There were 27 people signed up to speak about exotic animals on Monday night when Charlotte City Council passed a full ban on using exotic/wild animals in circuses or other performance shows/displays in Charlotte city limits.

The first speaker was a small-business owner named Holly Newton who is chair of United for Animals of Mecklenburg County. She complained that people have been calling for a full ban on circus animals for years now, but council continues to side with Atlanta-based UniverSoul Circus.

The next speaker said, “brown and Black residents from the range of countries where these animals come from have long condemned their exploitation.” She added that the African Elephant Coalition has asked to ban the export of elephants from their natural homelands, adding that capturing animals and putting them in cages for display “is a sad, lasting monument of colonial ideology.”

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Cynthia Hedrick, director of exotic animal sanctuary SC CARES, said she has watched how these animals feel and express pain both physical and mental. “What is being allowed to happen to these creatures is barbaric, unacceptable and heartbreaking.”

Another speaker said it’s been disheartening to watch as city leadership has refused to meet with animal advocates but accepted meetings with an out-of-state circus company. “Exotic animals will not perform tricks unless they are terrified of what will happen if they don’t.”

“The only explanation I can think of for why the ordinance was drafted this way is the council does not want to vote on an ordinance that would protect animals and is instead trying to save face and look like they are doing something positive, but the opposite is true,” said Kelsey Joseph.

Sarah Santos told council that the response from council members has led many in the movement to believe there are inside friendships with UniverSoul circus company or bribery involved.

“[Animals] don’t get onstage to perform for the fame or the applause, but because they have been beaten into submission,” said another speaker. “I beg you today to open up your hearts and make the only ethical move: ban outright all animal performances in circuses in Charlotte.”

April Benson was the first to speak who was not in favor a full ban. She said she loves animals and appreciates the opportunity to see exotic animals in east Charlotte when UniverSoul comes, adding that she wished to see a compromise so animals can come without being abused. “It’s no different from having pets at home.”

The speaker following Benson said the annual UniverSoul Circus arrival has become a tradition for the African American community. “This is a part of the culture of Charlotte even though it is based in Atlanta.” He said he is a promoter for the event and gets harassment for it, but claimed he is promoting culture.

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Exotic Animal Discussion & Vote

Following the public forum, city attorney Patrick Baker said no new consensus had been reached since the matter was last deferred in September.

The proposed ordinance on the agenda Monday night, known as Proposal A, stated that “no permanent or transient animal exhibition or circus shall induce or encourage animals to perform through the use of chemical, mechanical, electrical, or manual devices in a manner that is likely to cause physical injury or suffering. Further, the use of bullhooks, electric prods, or whips to handle, train, or otherwise interact with exotic or wild animals when they are on display, performing or being trained is prohibited.”

Proposal B, also included in the agenda despite have been presented to council by representatives of UniverSoul, would have allowed for the use of the above-mentioned tools like bullhooks and whips, but not for uses that would cause harm to the animals.

A UniverSoul rep at Monday’s meeting said whips are never used to make contact with an animal but for sound-making purposes during training, which caused an animal advocate in attendance to begin loudly arguing that the claim is false.

It appeared no council member wanted to make a motion to vote on any of the changes proposed in the agenda. Council isn’t supposed to have public discussion on agenda items unless a motion is on the floor, but when Matt Newton brought that up and called for a motion, nobody bit. Discussion continued.

Newton then introduced text to institute a full ban on exotic and wild animals for performance or display use in traveling circuses or any such shows in the city limits. He called for a motion, which was seconded by Larken Egleston.

Newton called out the UniverSoul representative in attendance, saying that many of the things he had said could be easily disproven by Googling “Universoul animal escapes” and/or “exotic animal bans” in other municipalities. The UniverSoul rep had claimed that New York City had no such ban (they do).

Renee Johnson said she is an animal lover and also a supporter of UniverSoul Circus, as it has been a staple of the Black community, which has lost CIAA and other cultural events. She made a substitute motion to approve Proposal A.

“I hope that UniverSoul and Charlotte have a long future together,” said Larken Egleston. “I just hope it can a future without [exotic] animals.” He stated he would vote against the substitute motion so that he can vote for the original full-ban motion.

Tariq Bokhari said he would do the same, admitting that this was not his passion or field of expertise, but he would trust his colleagues like Newton for whom it is.

Ed Driggs said he didn’t agree with the idea that, because Proposal A would leave both sides unhappy, it is an undemocratic outcome. “This is compromise, this is what we do in politics.” He said he would vote for Proposal A.

The substitute motion failed, bringing the full ban up for a vote. The motion for a full ban on using exotic/wild animals in circuses or other performance shows/displays in Charlotte city limits then passed 6-4. The Yes votes: Matt Newton, Larken Egleston, Dimple Ajmera, Tariq Bokhari, Victoria Watlington, and Braxton Winston.


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