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Idaho Students Are Behind Historic Anti-Circus Animal Law

"The average circus-going audience would be appalled if they knew what went on behind the scenes of the average American circus."

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There are advocates, there are lobbyists and then there are the kids from Hailey's Sage School. Not only are they the inspiration of a precedent-setting law banning exotic circus animals from nearby Ketchum, but the protections are the first-of-their-kind for any city in Idaho--or even Nevada or Wyoming, for that matter.

"I think it's pretty cool," 12-year-old Sam Laski told Boise Weekly. "Not many people on the Ketchum City Council knew about how circus animals are mistreated; so I think it's pretty neat that we can spread this message out to the community."

And the kids haven't stopped with Ketchum. They've already made similar presentations in front of Blaine County commissioners (who ordered their county prosecutor's office to investigate the matter) and the Sun Valley City Council (which indicated its initial support). But when the kids went before the Hailey City Council, that city's lawmakers said they had already been caged in by an agreement to allow the Jordan World Circus (and all of its exotic animals) to come to town in June.

"That's right; the circus is coming to our town this summer," said 13-year-old Harrison Blamires. "But we would rather encourage more human-performance circuses, like Cirque du Soleil."

The ambitious campaign started out as research project for Sage sixth- and seventh-graders.

"The hope of our school is to see our kids engage with real-world connections," said Chris McAvoy, lead teacher for sixth- and seventh-graders at Sage. "But remember, they're kids; they're normal kids."

Unfortunately, that doesn't shelter the kids from receiving plenty of pushback from some in their community who support circus animals being on display.

"Oh yeah, pick up the local paper and there's a huge debate," said McAvoy.

"It reinforces the view that the city is populated by a bunch of silly people," commented 57fender on the website of the Idaho Mountain Express.

"And here I thought Idaho's Legislature was the only group to waste taxpayer's money with such a ridiculous waste of time and laws," wrote Sawtooth75.

But the students--five of them made the presentation to the Ketchum City Council--did plenty of research on circus animals, thanks in large part to their mentor, Maya Burrell.

"Maya reached out to us," said Matt Rossell, campaign director of Los Angeles-based Animal Defenders International. "It's been absolutely inspiring to see these kids in action. This wasn't just a school project; they went out and became citizen lobbyists with enormous success."

Rossell insists that the average circus-going audience "would be appalled if they knew what went on behind the scenes of the average American circus."

"It's horrific to see how many of these animals live: in a trailer with no window to look out or in a tiny cage where the animal is pacing for hours on end," Rossell told BW. "Tigers are usually in small cages and our investigations reveal that elephants spend the majority of their lives chained up."

And indeed, the Sage students tugged at the heartstrings of Ketchum council members in convincing the lawmakers to agree to the ban of circuses using exotic animals.

"Quite often, the abuse happens behind the curtain and no one can film it. You can rarely get the evidence," said 13-year-old Will Griffith. "And if you try to call the police to report abuse, quite often the circus is out of town by then."

Rossell said the myth that "an elephant never forgets" is, in fact, very true.

"An elephant remembers the last severe training session that they had. Trainers commonly use electric shocking devices or 'bull hooks' to train elephants," said Rossell.

And even Dieter Galambos, the manager of Jordan World Circus (which comes to Hailey in June), admitted to Butte, Montana's KXLF-TV that his circus used the controversial hooks.

"Yes, they have hooks, but you can look at the animals and they are not all cut up, they are not bleeding," Galambos told KXLF-TV in April 2013, when the Jordan World Circus came to Butte, Mont. "But you don't take advantage of them, and you don't hurt them with it because they are big and they could retaliate."

To which Rossell was quick to add that it is a misnomer to ever think of an elephant as a tame animal.

"There's no such thing as a domesticated elephant," he said. "You can never train an adult elephant to do these ridiculous tricks. It's extremely dangerous, and the decision makers on the Ketchum City Council understand that now."

And as for Hailey, the students say they're not ready to work on a ballot initiative to put before that city's citizens until sometime in 2015.

"You bet, I would love to work on that ballot next year," said 13-year-old Blamires.