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N.J. becomes first in the nation to ban exotic animals in traveling shows

New Jersey has enacted "Nosey's law," named for a rescued circus elephant, banning exotic and wild animals in traveling shows, becoming the first state in the country to pass such a prohibition.

The elephant herd was once an iconic symbol of the Ringling Bros. Circus. The herd was retired in 2016 and the circus closed a year later.
The elephant herd was once an iconic symbol of the Ringling Bros. Circus. The herd was retired in 2016 and the circus closed a year later.Read more

New Jersey has become the first state in the country to ban elephants and other exotic animals from traveling performances, in a move praised by animal rights advocates, who are lobbying other states to enact similar measures.

“Nosey’s Law,” signed by Gov. Murphy on Friday, is named after an African elephant once owned by a Florida-based operator. Advocates rescued the ailing elephant, and she became the face of the law that makes it illegal to use wild and exotic animals in traveling shows, including circuses and carnivals.

“New Jersey has set the precedent,” Kate Dylewsky, senior policy adviser for the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, said Monday. “This is enormous progress.”

Two other states, Rhode Island and California, have enacted restrictions on the use of such animals, banning the use of bull hooks to move or train them. Also, New York and Illinois have prohibited the use of elephants in traveling shows. More than 100 municipalities have passed similar measures.

The New Jersey ban defines as exotic animals any species of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, fish, mollusk, or crustacean that is not indigenous to the state. It also applies to fairs, parades, petting zoos, and live events. If convicted, violators could face a civil penalty of up to $5,000.

New Jersey lawmakers hope the law will become a model. Several states, including Pennsylvania, are considering a similar ban. Advocates are also pushing for a federal bill, the Traveling Exotic Animal and Public Safety Protection Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.) to prohibit wild and exotic traveling shows nationwide.

“These beautiful creatures suffer from routine abuse and mistreatment by their handlers for the sake of entertainment,” State Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D., Camden), one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. “I hope that other states will follow our example so that this sort of abuse can be eliminated everywhere in the country.”

Nosey was abused by her owners, advocates say, and left crippled by arthritis after spending most of her life traveling around the country giving rides at fairs and flea markets. The 36-year-old elephant was imported as a baby from Zimbabwe. She has been retired to an animal sanctuary in Tennessee.

It took several years to get the elephant ban passed into law in New Jersey. Just before leaving office in January, Gov. Chris Christie refused to sign the bill, and the approval process had to start over under the Murphy administration. The state Senate passed the bill, 36-0, in late October, and the Assembly approved it, 71-3, the same day.

“These animals belong in their natural habitats or in wildlife sanctuaries, not in performances, where their safety and the safety of others is at risk," Murphy said.

Animal rights activists say the ban protects animals and humans who can be injured by an unruly animal in a crowd at a show or if the animal gets loose. In Pennsylvania, a handler was killed at a Wilkes-Barre circus in 2010 after he was kicked accidentally by an elephant.

Earlier this year, zebras were found grazing on a busy street in New Orleans after escaping from a circus there. In 2015, two zebras were safely corralled after they went on the loose from a circus in West Philadelphia.

For years, elephant acts were a favorite among circus-goers. The elephants would perform tricks and synchronized dances. But their popularity declined among strong opposition from animal rights groups that picketed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey over its treatment of animals.

In May 2016, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey retired its touring elephants to a conservation center in Florida. It later closed down, citing declining ticket sales and changing times. The “Greatest Show on Earth” once visited more than 100 cities annually.

“These are wild animals. It’s not their natural environment or behavior to get them to do what they do," said Lesley McCave, a spokeswoman for Animal Defenders International in Los Angeles.

“For too long, wild animals used in circuses have endured cruel training, constant confinement, and deprivation of all that is natural to them,” said Brian R. Hackett, New Jersey state director for the Humane Society of the United States.