Organizers mull ending Pittsburgh’s Shrine Circus

Animal treatment law puts event in jeopardy

PITTSBURGH — Just less than a month to go before Pittsburgh’s annual Shrine Circus, fans are snapping up tickets quicker than usual.

It’s not only because Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey shut down last year, leaving big-top faithful without the famous traveling show. It’s that September could mark an end for the 69-year-old Shriners’ event, too, organizer Paul Leavy said.

“We just don’t know,” the longtime circus chairman said last week.

About 30,000 people turn out for five shows over three days, the biggest single fundraiser for the Syria Shrine. An animal treatment law passed by city council in December jeopardizes the circus, where animals remain the No. 1 attraction, Leavy said.

Specifically, the regulation bans using any painful instruments, or instruments that could be painful, on or around wild and exotic animals. Circus insurance carriers require the presence of bullhooks — a pointed hook atop a long handle — around elephants, although only as guides, according to the Shriners.

Such conflict could leave the group with a few options: Convert to an animal-free circus, which Leavy said would likely fail; attempt to relocate the event out of Pittsburgh; or close it down. The group has argued that a shutdown would devastate its fundraising.

Mayor Bill Peduto urged Shriners to continue their tradition, but without “instruments that cause pain and injury to the animals they use as entertainment.” Other states and cities have passed similar rules without triggering a complete shutdown of Shrine circuses, he said.

“The use of animals as entertainment globally is not a growing industry,” Peduto said. He signed the city rule on animal treatment. The council vote was 6-3.

Probably more than half of circuses have given up animals over tighter rules for treatment, said Jan Biggerstaff, president at the Circus Fans Association of America. She estimated more than 30 circus groups travel the country.

“There are several shows going out making a living, paying performers, making a profit and traveling” without animals, Biggerstaff said. “People are disappointed, of course, especially if last year (the shows) came with animals and this year they don’t. People don’t understand what has happened.”

Longtime circus-goer Sherrin Lynn Kuzel, 41, said her son Andy, 10, who is on the autism spectrum, is particularly captivated by the lights, tricks and animals at the Shrine Circus.

“To see a special-needs child smile and have fun from start to finish, that’s something that is so precious,” said Kuzel, of White Oak. Activists for animal rights “have arguments — they do,” but she believes the circus offers “more good than bad.”

Still, switching away from old-fashioned animal attractions can open greater fundraising options through Cirque du Soleil-type performances, said Natalie Ahwesh, vice president at Humane Action Pittsburgh. The coalition lobbied council for the city rule.

“There’s many things that might have been tradition 100 years ago that are not acceptable now, and this is one of those things,” Ahwesh said of bullhooks and related tools.

Shriners maintain that animals at their circus don’t face pain or harm. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James granted them a one-time exception to the city rule, allowing the circus to go on Sept. 14-16 at PPG Paints Arena as the group fights the law in court. Court-approved monitors are slated to observe animal treatment at the event.