New Jersey lawmakers have taken the first step toward possibly making the state the first in the country to ban elephant acts from circus performances.
A state Senate committee voted 3-2 Monday to refer a bill imposing the ban to the full Senate.
Only two other states - Rhode Island and California - have imposed restrictions on elephant acts, banning the use of bull hooks to move the animals.
The New Jersey bill was approved in committee along partisan lines and its prospects of becoming law are uncertain.
But if enacted, the measure would be known as "Nosey's Law," named after a 34-year-old circus elephant owned by Hugo Liebel, a Florida-based circus operator. Animal rights advocates say Nosey is ailing and have campaigned to retire her.
"The bill is simple: a ban on elephants," its sponsor, State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union), said in an interview Tuesday. "We want to remove animals from the suffering that they undergo while in captivity."
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which retired its touring elephants in May, earlier than scheduled, urged the lawmakers not to legislate a ban.
Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Bros., could not be reached, but according to a report in NorthJersey.com, a company official told lawmakers in a letter that elephant acts help raise public awareness of their dwindling numbers in the wild and that prohibiting the acts "will make it more likely that elephants will disappear forever."
Ringling's decision to retire its elephant acts, the official said, was made on economic grounds.
For decades, the circus' elephants performed tricks such as synchronized dances. After their final act, the elephants were relocated to a conservation center in Florida. The circus had originally said the pachyderms would be retired in 2018.
Lesniak said he believes his bill would become a model for other states.
"The bill is bigger than Nosy," said Lesniak, chairman of the Senate Economic Growth Committee. More legislation may be proposed later, he said, to ban circus acts involving other exotic animals.
His bill calls for civil penalties for violators.
"A statewide prohibition is an amazing start to protecting exotic and live animals," said Brian Hackett, New Jersey director for the Humane Society of the United States. "It is a very, very courageous first step."
While elephant acts have been a favorite among circus-goers, animal rights groups have picketed Ringling Bros. over its treatment of animals. The circus visits more than 100 cities each year.
In 2011, Feld Entertainment agreed to pay a $270,000 fine for alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The company did not admit wrongdoing.
Nosy, imported as a baby from Zimbabwe, has become the face of recent campaigns around the country. Despite reportedly having crippling arthritis, the African elephant is still taken around the country for rides at events.
"Nosey has become like Cecil the lion as a symbol for suffering that human beings sometimes make animals go through," said Lesniak. Cecil, a male African lion, was hunted and killed by a dentist from Minnesota.
The lawmaker has also launched a petition in support of the elephant-ban bill that he hopes will get 100,000 signatures.
The New Jersey Chapter of the League of Humane Voters has been pushing for anti-circus ordinances around the state.
Jersey City Council approved a ban on exotic animals Wednesday night. Earlier this year, Bergen County adopted an ordinance banning exotic animal shows, such as circuses, on county property.
The Bergen County ban identifies about a dozen animals that are prohibited, such as tigers, kangaroos, snakes, and elephants.
This article has been corrected. It initially said that Jersey City approved a ban on exotic animals last spring. The city council took final action on the matter Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016.