WASHINGTON — Mexico, Peru, and several other Latin American countries have banned or restricted the use of animals in traveling circuses in recent years. Performing animals are even rarer in Europe, where many nations prohibit them.
There is no such federal law in the United States. But dozens of local bans, as well as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s recent decision to fold its tent, have some lawmakers hoping the US political terrain might now be fertile enough to send all circus elephants, tigers, and bears to retirement.
US representatives Ryan Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, this week introduced a bill that would prohibit wild or exotic animal performances in traveling circuses. Flanked by TV actors Jorja Fox and Eric Szmanda, the representatives argued that the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act would end the suffering of creatures that profit-motivated humans force to perform unnatural behaviors and live in cramped conditions.
‘‘I don’t think that those practices have any place in the fabric of our society,’’ said Costello, who added that his constituents are keenly interested in animal welfare issues.
The question is whether they and lots of other Americans are interested enough to push for a nationwide ban on circus animals. The bill is only the latest iteration of a proposal that’s been introduced in Congress several times before but has never gotten far. Also at the Capitol Hill event was former representative Jim Moran of Virginia, who noted that he was sorry it had never passed before but said the idea ‘‘did make some inroads.’’
There’s little question that public sentiment about performing and captive animals, particularly those considered highly intelligent, is changing. The Ringling Bros. announcement in January, which cited a decline in ticket sales, came after local laws and pressure from animal protection groups prompted the show to retire its elephants. Last year, SeaWorld decided to stop breeding orcas, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore is planning to move its dolphins to a sanctuary.
And animal welfare issues, as Costello suggested, have far more bipartisan support than many topics in Washington.
What’s more, backers of the bill say, the Trump administration’s zeal for cost-cutting could work in their favor. Circuses with animals are subject to federal inspection under the Animal Welfare Act. Retiring the animals would therefore reduce spending on inspections, making it a ‘‘win-win’’ for the government and for the creatures, said Jan Creamer, president of Animal Defenders International, whose campaigns helped drive the Latin America bans.
‘‘There’s an immediate budget cut,’’ Creamer said. She said a ban would affect 19 traveling circuses with 300 animals.
But there’s also an anti-regulatory zeal these days in Washington, and many lawmakers are loathe to dole out sweeping restrictions to industries. One opponent of the measure is the Cavalry Group, an advocacy group for ‘‘animal enterprise,’’ which last year said the idea ‘‘would deprive countless Americans [of] the ability to experience endangered animals up close, such as elephants and tigers.’’