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Advocate Spotlight: Behind the Topsfield Ban on Exotic Animals in Performing Acts

Topsfield Advocate Shares Her Story on Banning the Use of Certain Wild and Exotic Animals for Entertainment 

On May 7, 2019, animals won big when Topsfield residents cast votes at a town meeting to ban the use of certain exotic and wild animals for entertainment in their town. Topsfield thus became the 10th Massachusetts municipality to restrict the use of wild animals in circuses — joining Braintree, Cambridge, Quincy, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Provincetown, Revere, Somerville, and Weymouth, as well as the more than 150 localities nationwide and over 40 countries worldwide that have enacted similar bans. The Topsfield Fair has historically offered camel and elephant rides, making this bylaw particularly momentous and a huge win for animals. The petition’s success demonstrates the power citizens possess to create positive change for animals. Enactment of a similar ordinance in Mendon, Mass. following the passage of the Topsfield ban suggests that momentum is growing.

Below, we interview Martha Sanders, the Topsfield resident who introduced this citizens petition and saw it through to victory. Read on to learn about Martha’s experience, what surprised her the night of the vote, and what advice she would give others considering a municipal ordinance effort in their own community.

(Pictured above: Karen the elephant gives rides at the Topsfield Fair.)

Q: What motivated you to initiate your citizen petition to ban certain exotic and wild animals for use in entertainment in Topsfield?

A: I feel empathetic toward all animals, and I’ve been fascinated with elephants for years. From the first moment — maybe 25 years ago — that I saw an elephant giving rides at the Fair I’ve wanted to do something to stop it.


Q: How did you calculate the risk — if you felt there was one — of including so many animals?

A: When proposing a bylaw, the voters approve the wording exactly as written, so it’s possible to have it rejected because of one word or sentence. We recognized that because we have a very popular annual agricultural fair in our town that exhibits a wide range of animals, we’d run into opposition from people that would otherwise support a circus animal ban if we cast too wide a net and included all wild or exotic animals. Our list was therefore limited to the animals that we felt suffer most from their use in traveling acts and/or that pose the greatest risks to public health and safety: elephants, all big cats, bears, camels, giraffes, zebras, kangaroos, and primates. While all of these animals have been exhibited in traveling acts in Topsfield, only two have been displayed on a regular basis — elephant and camel.


Q: Some would say that the elephants at Topsfield were an iconic part of the Fair. How did the knowledge that that perception existed factor into your strategy?

A: Interestingly, it was the disconnect between that perception on the part of some people and the direct feedback that we were hearing from residents and Fair attendees that motivated us to move forward. It was clear that there was a large portion of the town’s residents that did not want an elephant at the Fair, or have one exhibited in a circus here. The ongoing depiction of an elephant in a traveling act as a positive symbol of the Fair, despite all evidence to the contrary, underscored the need for a bylaw prohibiting it.


Q: What outreach and awareness raising activities did you do to drum up support for your petition?

A: Educating the public well in advance of any vote is key. Over the last two years I and others have written letters that were shared in the local newspaper and on social media, asking the Fair to stop exhibiting elephants, and explaining why. There has been low key protesting — sign holding and collecting signatures on petitions — outside the Fair for several years. Social media has been particularly helpful; Topsfield has a Residents page on Facebook that has provided good opportunities for sharing information and getting feedback. We also handed out flyers at town public events, and at the Post Office on the Saturday morning before Town Meeting. I recruited supporters willing to speak at Town Meeting, and we collaborated on our “testimonies” in order to cover key points without overlapping. I had a couple of long-time elephant ban supporters hand out factsheets at Town Meeting as people arrived.


Q: How time-consuming was this undertaking?

A: Not terribly. I reached out to the Board of Selectmen 3 months before the citizens’ petition needed to be submitted to ask for their support. Next was drafting the bylaw, which was a fair amount of work, and required the help of a friend who’s a municipal attorney. We spent about 5 weeks fine tuning the wording, while reaching out to the MSPCA, Mass Audubon, and other organizations for their input. I then had to collect signatures on the citizens’ petition form — only 10 are required. Next was presenting the petition to the Finance Committee for their recommendation; it took 3 meetings over a 6-week period. After that it was outreach and sharing information. I would say that from January 5th until May 7th I was working on it in some form almost daily, with the most time spent in the first and last months. It was well worth it!


Q: A lot of people would find taking on something like this intimidating or overwhelming. What advice would you have for them?

A: Learn as much as you can about the issue, and be prepared to share that information and to answer questions. Have a clear understanding of your purpose or objective and develop a consistent messaging strategy. Identify others in your community that share your interest, and that are willing and able to help. Share your purpose and strategy with them and adjust messaging if needed based on their input, but stay consistent! Learn ahead of time about the bylaw or ordinance process in your city or town. There are very specific things you’ll need to do, with deadlines. Reach out to people you know in city or town government and seek their advice. Be patient, and hang in. It can be done!


Q: Would you do another one?

A: Absolutely. We as citizens have the power to effect real change in our communities, and should use it.


Q: How did you go about figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to navigate the citizens’ petition process in your town?

A: I sponsored a citizens’ petition for a land conservation project two years ago and learned how it was done. I worked closely with Essex County Greenbelt, a local land trust, and they guided me through the process. The petition was approved by the town — the first time the town of Topsfield had ever approved funding for land conservation (our current conserved lands were either gifts or are privately owned). I decided right afterward to pursue a bylaw banning elephants.


Q: What challenges did you encounter along the way? What opposition did you face?

A: The Topsfield Fair management considered the bylaw a smear campaign and personal attack and reacted very defensively. I met with them directly to discuss, to no avail. They maintained that position right up until the Town Meeting vote, and reached out to town members in the Essex Agricultural Society to come out to vote against it.


Q: What, if anything, would you do differently if you could do it over again?

A: I had assumed that the Finance Committee would support the bylaw, and underestimated the effect that the Fair’s negative response would have on them. I should have been better prepared to defend the purpose of the bylaw. The Finance Committee voted to recommend “no action” on the bylaw. This recommendation needed to be voted down at Town Meeting before proceeding to a vote on the bylaw warrant article. A “no action” recommendation has the potential to sway votes against warrant articles at Town Meeting. Fortunately that did not happen in this case.


Q: When the night of the vote came, did anything surprise you?

A: Yes. There was a marked difference in the spoken testimonies of men and women on this bylaw. All along I had noticed that women connected emotionally to the purpose of the bylaw in much greater numbers than men, and at Town Meeting the difference was very apparent. The men used outdated talking points that ignored the plight of the animals and came across as lacking credibility, whereas women spontaneously stood up and spoke from the heart. Their words were powerful, and resonated with those in attendance.


Q: What role, if any, do you see for organizations like the MSPCA in efforts to pass municipal laws?

A: The MSPCA was very helpful in creating messaging strategies, and in providing information in a consolidated way. The Humane Society of the United States Circus “Tool Kit” was also very helpful in developing bullet points and facts sheets. As a first timer, having the advice of experienced animal advocates was extremely beneficial, and made the process less stressful. I imagine this would be true in any other community.


Q: What follow-up work is entailed when passing an ordinance?

A: It’s important to know that once a bylaw is passed by a majority of the residents present at Town Meeting, it needs to be approved by the State Attorney General before it is enacted as a new town bylaw. After that, the Town may choose to alter the wording of the bylaw, subject to another vote at Town Meeting. Just because a bylaw is passed by the majority of a town doesn’t mean that it will remain intact in its original form. There may be forces at work that seek to weaken the bylaw, and care must be taken to guard against that. Keep an eye on the local Board of Selectmen’s agenda to see if changes in bylaw wording are being considered. If so, attend the meetings and be part of the process. Enlist the aid of other supporters if necessary. If changes detrimental to a bylaw are approved by the Selectmen, and are going to be presented as a Warrant Article at Town Meeting, be prepared to argue against them. Legislation, even on a local level, is always subject to amendment. It’s an ongoing process.


Q: What would be your advice to other citizens trying to decide whether or not to take up the effort of trying to pass a municipal law to protect animals in their town?

A: Test the waters and try to gauge the level of support in your community. If the support is there, it can be done. If it isn’t, it may be that your community hasn’t learned enough about the issue. Try putting the information out there and see what the response is. Find out what aspect of the issue your city or town finds relevant, or important, and focus on that.


Q: Is there anything else about your experience that you’d like to share?

A: Networking is important. Get to know people in your community, especially women; we’re great at making connections and building consensus. If you’re new to the community, try to engage with like-minded, long-time residents who have a wide circle of friends or acquaintances. Be sensitive to your audience when sharing information. Listen to their feedback. Finally, don’t give up!

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