TOPSFIELD — Elephants, camels and other "wild or exotic animals" will no longer be allowed at the Topsfield Fair after residents voted Tuesday night to ban their use in town for public entertainment purposes.
A majority of the approximately 600 residents who attended Town Meeting voted for the ban to "prevent the cruel and inhumane treatment" of the animals and "preserve and protect the general safety, welfare, and health of the public," as the measure read.
The ban is effective immediately and will end the popular elephant and camel rides that have been a staple of the fall fair for decades.
"In the end the town of Topsfield recognized that the treatment of these animals is inhumane," said Martha Sanders, a Topsfield resident who sponsored the Town Meeting article for the ban. "This the concept that won out, the compassionate concern for these animals."
The ban does not affect the many farm animals that are exhibited at the Topsfield Fair, which marked its 200th anniversary last year. Shows featuring goats, rabbits, horses, sheep, cattle, poultry and others will continue.
The list of banned animals includes elephants, camels, lions, tigers, ocelots, cheetahs, jaguars, cougars, lynx, bears, giraffes, zebras, kangaroos, and all "non-human primates." Out of those, the fair has featured only elephants and camels in recent years.
Topsfield Fair General Manager James O'Brien did not return messages for comment. A spokesman for the fair said O'Brien and his staff were calling the 40 schools that had signed up for the elephant and camel education programs to let them know they have to be canceled.
The spokesman, David Thomson, said all of the fair's other education programs, which serve 15,000 students, will continue, "but these two programs are the most popular so they want to give the educators as much notice as possible."
Thomson said O'Brien would have no further comment. "He is just moving forward with making the changes based on the new law," Thomson said in an email.
The vote to ban the exotic animals was taken by a show of hands during Town Meeting at the Proctor School. The measure passed by a "clear majority," according to the town clerk's office.
The use of the animals for public entertainment has sparked protests and petitions over the years at the Topsfield Fair and other locations, including the Big E in Springfield. Sanders said the animals suffer under confined conditions, particularly when transported to the fair.
The elephants and camels used by the Topsfield Fair come from the Commerford Zoo in Connecticut. One of those elephants, a six-ton Asian elephant named Beulah, has been a popular attraction at the Topsfield Fair for years. The fair held a 43rd birthday party for Beulah in 2011, with several hundred people, including school groups, singing "Happy Birthday."
A message left with the Commerford Zoo was not returned.
The ban prohibits not only rides but the use of the animals for performances, parades and photo opportunities. It covers the entire town, not just the Topsfield Fair.
Sanders said there have been no instances of animal abuse at the Topsfield Fair itself, but added, "That's beside the point because the traveling animal act industry is inherently cruel."
"It's not that the elephants are being mistreated necessarily in Topsfield," she said. "They're part of a traveling act business that's inhumane. They're transported in trailers all over the place. It's more a rejection of the industry than something that's specifically happened here."
Bill Clark, a board member of the Essex Agricultural Society, which owns and operates the Topsfield Fair, said he agrees with the ban on exotic animals. He said he has pushed for a ban for the last few years but failed to gain support on the board.
"I don't think they have any place in an agricultural fair," Clark said.
Clark said he doesn't think the loss of elephants and camels will have a major impact on the fair's popularity. He noted that some people were upset when the fair stopped dog racing 35 years ago.
"The fair has survived despite changes," he said.
Karen Moniz, a longtime volunteer at the Topsfield Fair who won the fair's Mrs. Essex County contest in 2007, read a statement against the ban at Town Meeting. In an interview, she said she spoke out because she didn't want the fair "dragged through the mud."
"The exotic animals that come to the fair are well regulated and maintained and pose no threat to the safety and the welfare of the public, which is what part of the ban said," she said. "Topsfield does not need to ban these animals because there are already so many regulations in place to protect the animals and to protect the public."
Moniz said Beulah the elephant was a big attraction for students as part of the fair's education programs.
"She would come into the grandstand and you could hear the children scream with delight," she said. "They were able to see up close animals that are normally on TV or in storybooks. I feel that it's a loss. But the show will go on."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.