Meeting draws debate over city’s performance animal ordinance
GAITHERSBURG, Md. — Residents of Gaithersburg and other parts of Montgomery County showed their passion on both sides of the debate regarding proposed changes to the city’s performance animal ordinance earlier this month.
In a City Council meeting on April 2, the public comments portion lasted more than an hour with citizens speaking in favor of or against the ordinance changes. If approved, the changes would prohibit certain animals from entering the city as a performance animal.
The current list includes snakes, camels, llamas, sharks, and kangaroos, among others. As those commenting on the ordinance changes were invited to the podium, Mark Ryba, fair president, was first in line. He focused on the dedication to animal welfare and education at the fair, which were echoed by nearly everyone speaking against the proposed changes.
Ryba also said the bill is not being pushed by the Maryland Department of Agriculture or other leaders in the animal industry.
Ryba told the council the bill has the backing of the Humane Society of the United States and “their ultimate goal is to end animal agriculture and ban zoos. (Therefore,) this change would be a dangerous step to depriving our community of those local treasures.”
Concerns of dangers to the public and to the rights of these animals were common arguments in favor of the ordinance changes. One resident listed past injuries resulting from travelling animals, though none had occurred in Gaithersburg.
Many of the opponents to the changes were concerned 4-Hers who had been attending and exhibiting at the fair for several years. Most of them spoke on the potential threat to their personal animal projects, as there are still many gray areas in the current wording.
Throughout the hearing, Mayor Jud Ashman reminded the audience that the purpose of the hearing is simply to determine whether or not to act on the suggestions through drafting legislation.
He also frequently commended them for being respectful in the debate.
Montgomery County 4-Her Ashley Hobbs said there could already be common ground between the two sides, as the HSUS recommends only eating humanely raised animals and 4-H and the fair make animal welfare a priority.
“There are not two sides,” Hobbs said. “We are on the same side in our concerns for animal welfare.”
The economic implications came into the limelight later in the evening as residents discussed whether the changes would lead to disparities in access to animal education.
Residents in favor of the ordinance changes believed it would be better to view the animals interacting in their natural habitat, but those against recognized that many people may not have the means to see them in those places.
Throughout the hearing, both sides seemed to reach a consensus on two things; they are both in favor of both animal welfare and animal education.
A resident speaking against the ordinance changes told the City Council, “If you’re going to do this, pinpoint it tight. You’re going to lose a lot if you don’t.”
At the conclusion of public comments, Ashman thanked everyone for voicing their opinions, and stated “This is an important topic on which there are many passions about it. This will be a difficult decision.”
The topic was revisited later in the evening, and the City Council decided to appoint Kevin Roman, Neighborhood Services Division Chief, to draft the proposed ordinance which will be sent to both the fair and HSUS for revisions.
On the recommendation of several residents, both of these organizations will then meet with City Attorney, Lynn Board, to find common ground in their revisions. After the meeting, Marty Svrcek, executive director of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair, pointed out that there are already sufficient protections in place to ensure humane treatment of animals and provided the council with a three-inch stack of laws to illustrate this point.
He added that there is “no evidence in data provided by the Gaithersburg Department of Animal Control that any performance animal abuse or danger to citizens has occurred within the city and therefore no need for this ordinance.”
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