A lemur used in a street exhibition in Old Town allegedly bit an unsuspecting tourist on May 20, raising issues of how wild and domesticated animals are being regulated in their use by street performers in Key West.
Cherish A. Giannetta, of Egg Harbor, N.J., claimed in an affidavit filed with the city's Code Compliance Department that after she held the animal about 10:45 p.m., "The lemur suddenly turned and bit me on one cheek ... then the lemur bit me harder on the cheek (again).
"I handed the lemur back and realized my left cheek was bleeding, so we left to go purchase first aid supplies and clean it," she wrote in the affidavit. "I didn't think about asking about diseases until it was too late, as I was so in shock that I had gotten bit."
Giannetta filed the affidavit five days later, on May 25. Code Compliance Manager Jim Young on Tuesday said he was not aware of any pending legal action connected to the incident.
In a video of the incident recorded by Giannetta's husband, a copy of which the city gave The Citizen, Giannetta is holding the lemur, which turns toward her, but no blood can be seen on her cheek.
The affidavit claims the owner, Kurt Tomecek, a Stock Island resident, said to her, "That was why I told you not to say anything." In the video, Tomecek, who is holding the leash attached to the lemur, is not heard making that statement verbatim, but instead says, "Stop. See what I mean? He might think you're trying to take food from him. That's why I was, like, be quiet with him."
The lemur clearly seems to bite at Giannetta's nose -- the bridge of her nose, specifically, not her cheek, as stated in the affidavit. Just before the lemur nips at Giannetta, Tomecek clearly tells her that he discourages anyone from making "clicking" or "kissing" noises, as the animal can possibly mistake those sounds as cues for another meaning or interpretation, making the animal unpredictable.
"It was a love nibble on her cheek," Tomecek told The Citizen Tuesday. "There was no blood or discoloration on the woman, no broken skin. She paid $20 to have her picture taken with the animal, and she understood that it's an animal."
Tomecek said the lemur, known as "Batman," has nails on its hands, which are more dangerous than its teeth. Batman, barely a year old, has been raised entirely in captivity.
Tomecek will be issued a citation because he didn't have an occupational license to operate on private property, according to Young. The incident occurred on private property in the 700 block of Duval Street.
Tomecek has a public street performer permit, but the rules regulating such activities apply only to acts occurring on public property, not private property, Young emphasized.
The city in April increased regulations for street performers and artists on public property. The only animals that legally can be used are dogs, cats, birds and tortoises, and performers are required to have at least $300,000 of liability insurance.
"This is exactly why city staff was stressing the need for insurance during the discussions (for this ordinance)," Young said Tuesday.
The city gave performers until June 8 to acquire the appropriate insurance policies, Young said, so Tomecek was not required to have such insurance at the time of the incident, even if he had been on public property.
Tomecek has 150 days to obtain a $100 occupational license to operate on private property. He also will be fined $25 for the violation, and could be charged another $250 in administrative fees to cover the cost of the investigation, according to Young.
Legal vs. moral
Key West has a long and colorful history of street performers using exotic animals in their acts. Still some people oppose the practice, even if animal owners comply with state and federal regulations.
The U.S. Animal Welfare Act of 1966 states: "During public exhibition, any animal must be handled so there is minimal risk of harm to the animal and to the public, with sufficient distance and/or barriers between the animal and the general viewing public so as to assure safety of animals and the public."
That's not enough, according to the international animal advocacy group Born Free USA.
"The public may not be aware that when they patronize, or pay, these exhibitors for their 'services,' they are contributing to animal cruelty," Monica Engebretson, a senior program associate with Born Free USA, said via telephone from her office in Sacramento, Calif.
Born Free's mission is to end the suffering of wild animals in captivity, rescue individual animals in need and protect wildlife, including endangered species.
"Even if the animal appears to be in good health and appears to be treated well during the exhibition, there is no way for the casual observer to know the conditions under which the animal is kept or how the animal is treated when not on display," she continued. "Moreover, captive wild animals are constantly denied the ability to express their natural behaviors and this is a constant source of stress. Stressed and frustrated animals are always unpredictable and can lash out or 'snap' without warning."
She said animals can physically injure humans and pose health risks from diseases that can be transmitted between humans and animals.