BOSTON — Amid pressure from animal welfare groups, state lawmakers want to ban the use of elephants, big cats and other exotic animals for entertainment purposes.

One proposal with bipartisan support on Beacon Hill effectively outlaws traveling circuses and other wild animal performances, and it slaps hefty fines on violators.

“The goal is to prevent large commercial enterprises that are subjecting animals to unfit conditions from coming to Massachusetts,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, the bill’s primary sponsor.

“These animals are confined for long periods of time while they’re traveling from show to show, and we shouldn’t accept that here,” he said.

The ban targets lions, tigers and other big cats, primates, elephants, rhinos, hippopotamuses, giraffes, bears, hyenas and alligators. Fines for violators would range from $500 to $5,000 per animal, he said.

Another proposal, sponsored by Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead and Sen. Kathleen O’Connor-Ives, D-Newburyport, specifically bans traveling elephant acts.

“Even under the best of circumstances, life on the road for an elephant is hard,” Ehrlich said. “They’re kept in confined spaces and often forced to stand in their own excrement, which results in degenerative joint disease, foot disorders and other complications.”

Ehrlich, who has previously sought to ban the use of a sharp-edged tool called a bullhook to train elephants, said using pachyderms for public entertainment also poses safety concerns.

“They’ve trampled trainers, bolted out of circus tents and horrified spectators,” she said.

‘A real shame’

Efforts to ban animal shows are opposed by the outdoor entertainment industry, which argues that performing animals are well cared for and often live longer than animals confined in zoos.

Animal welfare groups distort the truth, the industry says.

“This is a minority of activists trying to dictate what the majority of the country is allowed to have for entertainment,” said Robert Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association. “It’s a real shame.”

Johnson said most circus operators don’t mistreat animals.

“They’re making a living off the animals,” he said. “They’re not going to mistreat them.”

Despite such claims, Stephanie Harris, state director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, said circus animals are routinely subjected to cruel treatment.

“We need stronger laws,” she said. “There are federal guidelines, but they’re minimal, and there’s no oversight of training where the abuse often occurs.”

At least 22 states have restrictions that limit circus animal performances and methods used to train and control them, though none have imposed outright bans.

Major cities such as Los Angeles have bans on animal performances, public contact with animals and acts such as elephant rides. In Massachusetts, communities such as Cambridge, Revere and Pittsfield have imposed local bans on traveling circuses and other exotic animal shows.

In January, Feld Entertainment announced plans to permanently close Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, a staple of entertainment for nearly 146 years. The owners, who had already planned to retire the elephants, cited slumping ticket sales, rising costs and strict animal welfare regulations for bringing down the curtain.

“The Greatest Show on Earth” will hold six performances from April 14-16 in Worcester, in what will be its final visit to Massachusetts, according to the company’s website. The final performances are scheduled for May.

‘Proceeding carefully’

Tarr said he expects his proposal will need to be modified before it comes up for a final vote, so it doesn’t negatively impact accredited groups that work with exotic animals for educational purposes, or events like the Topsfield Fair that host animal shows.

“We’ve heard concerns from a substantial number of people who would be adversely affected, which is not the intent,” he said. “So we need to approach this carefully.”

Animal welfare groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, say public support for performing animals has declined in recent years following allegations of abuse and mistreatment, much of it involving large-scale traveling circus acts.

“These animals don’t do tricks because they want to, they do them because they’ve been whipped and beaten behind the scenes,” said Rachael Mathews, PETA’s associate director for captive animal law enforcement. “They spend their lives caged and chained in parking lots and arena basements.”

Circus operators are relying more on human performers — jugglers, acrobats, trapeze artists and magicians — as they shift from animal acts, she said.

“The reality,” she said, “is that the show will go on without the animals.” 

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.