July 10, 2002 – A circus that has come under international criticism for forcing polar bears to perform stunts in tropical climates under conditions that critics describe as animal cruelty has applied for permits to put on shows in the Virgin Islands.
Officials of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Planning and Natural Resources Department are reviewing the application from the Suarez Brothers Circus to perform for two weeks on St. Croix and two weeks on St. Thomas, division director Barbara Kojis said on Wednesday.
DPNR officials will review the application from the Guadalajara, Mexico-based circus, along with information from federal wildlife agencies and animal rights groups before deciding whether to allow the circus to perform in the territory, Kojis said. She said DPNR Commissioner Dean Plaskett will make the final decision.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Humane Society of the United States, the Animal Welfare Institute, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, and Polar Bears International are among the organizations that have criticized the circus for what they call its cruel treatment of six polar bears.
The bears, native to the cold and wet Arctic wilderness, perform in temperatures that can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Debbie Leahy of the exotic animals section of PETA. During performances in Puerto Rico, the bears appeared to be panting and weak from the heat, she said. "A tropical climate is grossly inappropriate for an Arctic animal," she said. "Just looking at them, it's obvious that they're miserable."
PETA has submitted videotapes of the bears' performances and more than 100 pages of documents to Virgin Islands officials, she said.
Raul Suarez, the manager of the circus, said on Wednesday that the bears appear to be happy and healthy as they perform for audiences in Puerto Rico. "The bears are in good condition. They have air conditioning, a pool, good food, everything," he said. Federal inspectors would not allow the circus to continue displaying the bears if they were not properly cared for, he said.
The circus has applied for permits to come to the U.S. Virgin Islands, but no dates for performances have been set, he said.
Officials for the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees the display of exotic animals, found no problems with the treatment of the bears during a May 8 inspection, according to service spokesman Jim Rogers. The inspectors found that the circus met requirements in providing the bears with water, food, ventilation, medical treatment and other aspects of proper care, he said.
PETA has sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Agriculture for allowing the Suarez Brothers Circus to use the polar bears in its shows, Leahy said. PETA argues in that lawsuit that the federal agencies are not enforcing laws to ensure proper treatment of the bears and laws requiring that any display of the animals have educational significance, she said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether the circus's use of the bears meets the educational significance test, Patricia Fisher, a spokeswoman for the service, said. If the it does not, she added, the Fish and Wildlife Service will not grant a permit allowing the bears to leave Puerto Rico.
The controversy has led to the introduction of legislation in Congress to ban the use of polar bears in circuses, said Wayne Pacelle, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.
The national Humane Society opposes the use of all wild animals in circus shows, but the use of polar bears in the tropical shows is especially disturbing, Pacelle said. "They're languishing in the heat of the Caribbean, and that's just wrong," he said.
For details on the various organizations' charges concerning the bears, go to your favorite online search engine and type in "Suarez Brothers Circus." For accounts of the removal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of one bear from the circus in Puerto Rico in March, see the Humane Society of the U.S. online newsletter and the petsville.com newsbite.
No deadline has been set for making a decision on whether to allow the circus to come to the Virgin Islands, Kojis said.
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