July 12, 2002 – Despite mounting protests from animal rights groups, the V.I. Carnival Committee's top administrator continued on Friday to defend its intention to bring the Suarez Brothers Circus, polar bears and all, to the Virgin Islands.
Caswil Callender, committee executive director, said he was as concerned as anybody about the treatment of the six bears that perform in the Guadalajara, Mexico-based circus. But federal inspectors have found the animals are treated humanely and have given the circus permission to keep the bears, he pointed out.
With that federal approval, and what he saw personally when he visited the circus in Puerto Rico, Callender said, he is convinced that the animals are okay, and that the circus will be good family entertainment to bring to the Virgin Islands.
"I'm no expert on animals, but I didn't see any evidence of mistreatment," he said. "Had we gotten notification from the federal government that Suarez Brothers were in violation of anything, we certainly wouldn't have gotten involved with them. We at the Carnival Committee try to do things the right way."
National animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the U.S. have criticized the circus for using the Arctic animals in a show that tours in the tropics. PETA claims the bears are panting and weak from the heat even as they are beaten and forced to do tricks for the crowds.
PETA has sued the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior over what the organization claims is the departments' failure to enforce animal cruelty laws and a statute that requires any display of polar bears to be accompanied by educational material, said Debbie Leahy of PETA.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of determining whether the circus shows comply with the educational requirement.
Veterinarians with the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service cited the circus for not having proper fencing around the animals, but those concerns were later addressed, according to documents from APHIS. The agency has given the circus passing marks in recent months for providing adequate food, water, air-conditioning and medical care for the bears, according to APHIS inspection documents.
The Carnival Committee hopes to present the circus on St. Thomas for about two weeks beginning July 19 or 20, and later to take the show to St. Croix, Callender said. The circus first must obtain a permit from the Planning and Natural Resources Department to being the animals into the territory. And officials have announced that not DPNR but Gov. Charles W. Turnbull will have the final decision on whether to issue such a permit.
Animal rights advocates locally as well as nationally are campaigning to persuade the governor to deny the permit.
"The Humane Society of St. Thomas is calling on the administration to prevent the Suarez Circus from bringing polar bears to our beautiful islands," Joe Aubain, Humane Society of St. Thomas president, stated a release. "We in the Virgin Islands can do our part to protect these bears by refusing to allow the circus to bring the animals to our shores.
"Tell the circus if it wants to come here, it must do so without the polar bears," Aubain said.
Monique Sibilly-Hodge, assistant Tourism commissioner, said her department had received a number of faxes against bringing the bears to the territory but could not say how many. On Friday, an e-mail petition titled "Free the polar bears from their torturers" was circulating in the territory.
Callender noted that activities that many people would consider animal cruelty are common on St. Thomas, such as legal cock fighting and illegal pit bull fighting. He said some people might consider keeping animals in cages or eating meat animal cruelty. "My point is, we shouldn't make this decision on what our personal feelings about it are, but on what the law says," he said. "And the federal government has given the circus permits to keep the bears."
Turnbull was off-island on Friday. Government House personnel did not return telephone calls concerning when he would make a decision on the permit request.
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