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Florida Keys News
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Feds banned exotic animals in circus

To the dismay of some and delight of others, Key Westers should not expect to see any lions, tigers or elephants at the one-ring circus coming to the Truman Waterfront this month.

Walker Bros. Circus stopped featuring exotic animals after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cited it in 2004 for violations of the Animal Welfare Act pertaining to the care and treatment of the elephants in its shows. The circus was fined $25,000 and lost its exotic animal exhibition license for five years, according to USDA records.

As of Wednesday, all required licenses were current for the Walker Bros. Circus, USDA spokesman David Sacks said.

The shows in Key West will feature trapeze and other aerial acts, jugglers, clowns, contortionists and domestic animals such as pigs and mules, circus spokeswoman Sashi Meluzzi said Wednesday.

"It's a lot of acrobats and comedy routines," she said. "We have one of the world's youngest contortionists, who is 8 years old, and an amazing juggler who is only 13."

She acknowledged the circus's previous problems and said Walker Bros. had leased the elephants and their accompanying trainers from an Illinois company called the Hawthorne Corp., which has been cited by the USDA numerous times and in 2004 was ordered to relinquish custody of 16 elephants, according to the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

"We are no longer involved with that company since that incident, and we haven't worked with elephants for the past three years," Meluzzi said. "We've basically done away with using exotic animals in the show because of the activists."

PETA representatives have long protested circuses and their exploitation of animals. The group's Web site urges people to boycott circuses that use animals, and it keeps fact sheets on 25 circuses the USDA has cited.

The Key West chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will keep an eye on the circus when it arrives, Executive Director Connie Christian said.

"I'd imagine our officers would have a presence at the shows," she said. "Certainly we would be watching to be sure there is no animal abuse, and we would want to know of any reports of abuse taking place."

The Walker Bros. Circus will perform Jan. 29 through 31 with two shows Friday and Saturday and one show on Sunday. Tickets are $14 for adults, and children under 14 get in free.

mbolen@keysnews.com

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