The Planning and Natural Resources commissioner made the right decision regarding the Suarez Brothers Circus. Whether it was made for the right reasons is another matter.
Commissioner Dean Plaskett said he refused to approve a permit to bring the six polar bears to the Virgin Islands because the species is "aggressive" and "we wouldn't have a contingency plan in case there was an emergency."
That, however, was not what the controversy was all about. It was about allegations that polar bears whose native habitat is the cold Arctic region are being mistreated by being forced to perform and live in questionable circumstances in the tropics.
And yet, as cruel as it may seem to animal rights advocates, the care and feeding of six polar bears in the tropics also should not have been the overriding consideration for those faced with deciding whether to welcome the circus to the Virgin Islands or rescind the invitation extended earlier by the V.I. Carnival Committee.
The fact is that those in the Virgin Islands faced with making the decision were not in a position to know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, whether the bears are being appropriately cared for or cruelly abused, whether they are miserable or content with their current lot in life. What authorities had to base their decision upon was a wealth of official, unofficial and highly contradictory data ranging from government inspectors' reports to numerous Internet web sites of animal advocacy organizations.
What should have guided the Carnival Committee from the get-go, before it extended the invitation, was the fact that the Suarez Brothers Circus has generated a lot of controversy on an international level in an arena that many people feel passionate about. If the committee had already decided to bring a circus to the territory, it was no doubt pleased to find one only 45 or so miles away in Puerto Rico. But one of the first things the committee should have done was to check out that particular circus on the Internet.
Try it: Go to your favorite search engine (Google being widely regarded as the best) and type in "Suarez Brothers Circus." What comes up is not a web site promoting the enterprise but page after page of sites focusing on allegations of animal cruelty and regulatory violations.
Had the officials decided to allow the bears into the territory, there is no doubt, in a community where cock fighting is legal and dog fighting is not unknown, that many people, children included, would have plunked down the price of admission to see them perform. But it would not have been worth the cost to the community.
The Virgin Islands already is burdened with an image as a place where sun, sand, sea, shopping and cultural and ecological attractions coexist with fires at its dumps, sewage on its shores and killings in its streets. Tourism remains, for the foreseeable future, our main source of public and private sector revenue. Our Tourism Department, its public relations agency and the local hospitality industry do not need the further challenge of marketing a venue where entertainment widely believed to involve animal cruelty is knowingly welcomed in the face of vocal objections.
Conspiracy theorists might postulate that this whole pappyshow was planned to divert the media from relentless reporting of the dump fires, sewage spills and slayings. Unkind administration critics might call to mind the Roman emperors' reliance on "bread and circuses" to keep the masses from uprising.
We would like to believe the Carnival Committee did not know of the controversy surrounding the Suarez Brothers when it made the decision to bring the circus to the territory. But, even though it seems to go against the grain of many in positions of political authority, there is merit in admitting an honest mistake. If our public officials are not embarrassed, let alone ashamed, about bringing unneeded controversy to our shores, they should not be surprised to find their action met with public outcry, at home and far beyond.
The last time a circus came to the Virgin Islands was in 1988, when the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce brought one that set up its tent in the Crown Bay landfill and later traveled over to St. Croix. It was hugely successful, attracting long lines of patrons day after day. It had no animal acts.
There are other circuses out there today that don't have an image problem. It's too bad the committee didn't choose one of them.
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