July 15, 2002 – The bears are out but the circus is still on.
One V.I. government official announced on Monday that the Suarez Brothers Circus will not be allowed to bring six polar bears to the Virgin Islands. Another announced that the circus general manager has agreed to bring the circus to the territory without the bears.
The V.I. Carnival Committee arranged to bring the circus from Puerto Rico later this month for shows on St. Thomas and St. Croix being billed as part of the territory's 50th anniversary Carnival celebrations.
Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett said at a press conference Monday on St. Croix that he had denied the Suarez Brothers application to bring the polar bears to the Virgin Islands for three weeks.
While the bears remain in Puerto Rico, the circus is expected to open on St. Thomas on Friday or Saturday and spend about three weeks in the territory, said Caswil Callender, V.I. Carnival Committee executive director.
V.I. law prohibits the importation of various plants and animals, including "large carnivores," without permission from the DPNR commissioner. Plaskett said he saw no reason to make an exception to that policy in the circus case.
"The polar bear is the most aggressive of all bear species," he said. "We wouldn't have the facilities or veterinary resources to take care of them if we had to, and we wouldn't have a contingency plan in case there was an emergency."
Public outcries in recent days in response to the Carnival Committee's announced plan to bring the bears to the territory had little, if anything, to do with concerns about the animals' aggressiveness or any threat they might pose to the local populace.
Animal rights groups have criticized the Suarez Brothers Circus, which is based in Mexico, for touring in the tropics with animals whose natural habitat is the cold weather and waters of the Arctic region. The activist animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says the bears suffer in temperatures that at times exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit while they are forced to do tricks and when they are caged while not performing.
PETA has sued the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and of Interior for giving permits to the circus to use the polar bears as the show travels throughout Puerto Rico. PETA claims the federal agencies have failed to enforce animal cruelty laws and a requirement that any display of polar bears have an educational component.
The Humane Society of St. Thomas opposed bringing the bears to the territory. In an effort to persuade V.I. officials to deny the bears entry, other animal-rights activists circulated an e-mail petition locally last week titled "Free the polar bears from their torturers."
Raul Suarez, general manager of the circus, said the polar bears will continue to perform in shows in Puerto Rico. He noted that federal inspectors have given permission for the circus to use the animals and have stated that the bears appeared to be happy and healthy.
"Thousands of people come to this show and love to see them," Suarez said, adding that he did not feel that the decision in the Virgin Islands put any pressure on him to stop using the polar bears in the circus elsewhere.
On Monday, an official of the Humane Society of the United States applauded the decision to keep the bears from performing in the Virgin Islands. "It's welcome news for anyone concerned with the welfare of these polar bears," Wayne Pacelle, a society vice president, said. "This circus is running out of places to conduct its cruel practices."
Last week, Callender defended the circus's use of the polar bears, noting that their treatment had passed federal inspection.
On Monday he said that, because of the controversy surrounding the polar bears, he had asked the Suarez Brothers if they could bring the circus without the bears.
"Rather than have any big commotion, we want to have a peaceful celebration," Callender said.
In a release from his office later Monday, Callender said Raul Suarez had agreed to have the circus come to the territory minus the bears "in an effort to eliminate any adverse reaction to the scheduled performance."
Callender said the Carnival Committee hoped the decision "will put the issue to rest" and that everyone will "come out to the circus as we continue the peaceful cerebration of the 50th anniversary of Carnival in the V.I."
The circus has clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists and other animal acts that include dogs and horses, all of which will be allowed to come to the territory, Callender said.
According to published reports, Government House officials had indicated in recent days that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull would have the final say in whether to grant the circus a permit to bring the bears into the territory and would make his decision after reviewing the recommendation of the DPNR commissioner. Turnbull is in Boise, Idaho, for the annual meeting of the National Governors Association, which began Saturday and runs through Tuesday.
Plaskett said on Monday that he spoke to the governor last week, and Turnbull agreed that it was the commissioner's call.
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