Pace Professor Discusses NY's Elephant Protection Act

Dec 12, 2017

College students from Pace University who drove legislation to ban elephants from performing in entertainment venues in New York will be presented with the signed bill on campus Wednesday. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne spoke with Michelle Land, who co-teaches the class that worked on the bill in its early stages.

Land says the Elephant Protection Act, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in October, is the first ban of its kind in the nation.

“Other places have banned some of the training implements, like the bullhook has been banned. And we know that if you can’t bring in a bullhook, you can’t train the elephant. It’s an essential training tool,” says Land. “Or, there have been attempts at travelling bans. But this is the first one that has said under no circumstances can you bring an elephant into the state for entertainment purposes.”

And the ban was student driven. Land, a wildlife biologist, co-teaches the undergraduate Environmental Policy Clinic at Pace University in Westchester County, where the idea took hold.

“I feel like this is a bit of a watershed moment of students and professors working side by side on an issue that was student driven and, frankly, successfully implementing policy in such a short period of time because we’d really only been working on the elephant bill for a couple of years.”

Republican Senator Terrence Murphy and Assembly Democrat Amy Paulin sponsored the bill. Land says students ran with the idea of banning animals in entertainment, an idea that was honed.

“We ended up looking at just the elephant alone because of the fact that elephants are just in such crisis globally in their populations, but also because of the fact that it’s the iconic circus animal,” Land says. “And we figured if we could make a statement with the elephant, than it’s probably a signal of what’s to come. The other animals are also going to be undesirable to people to see them in an entertainment act.”

Though the most storied name attached with the circus performed its final show in May, Land says the ban is still very much needed.

“Despite the fact that Ringling has closed its tents for good, we still have nine or so circuses that come through New York state with elephants and, as recent as last year,” says Land. “And these are smaller circuses; they probably have less resources, if you will, to take care of their animals. And they’re all the same elephants. They all kind of get passed around. They’re, usually you’ve got a few elephant owners, and then they get contracted out to the circuses.”

The ban comes with exemptions.

“There’s only two exemptions in the bill. And one of them is that if you’re a sanctuary, and there’s a definition for sanctuary in the environmental conservation law,” Land says. “And so sanctuaries are exempt and zoos that are accredited, AZA zoos are exempted. That’s it.”

Land describes the opposition that arose during the process.

“There was a little bit of opposition as the bill was making its way through the legislature. There were two groups, the Elephant Managers Association. Not terribly surprising that they were not pleased,” says Land. “And the other group was, it was a National Animal Interest Alliance, which is essentially a group that protects the rights of animal owners.”

The ban, which takes effect in 2019, includes a civil penalty of up to $1,000 per act that violates the law.

“We’re more aware of the fact that the animals are… they’re intelligent, they’re social creatures, they are sentient beings and, therefore, they’re not at our disposal to entertain us,” says Land. “And I think that’s sort of a general cultural change that is among us at the moment in our society. And so we know that people are paying more attention to this, and we fully expect that other states will look to New York as the leader and want to follow suit.”

Murphy and Paulin are scheduled to present Pace students with the signed Elephant Protection Act at Pace University Dyson College of Arts and Sciences. Land and Professor John Cronin, who teach the Environmental Policy Clinic, also are slated to be on hand in Pleasantville.