It is well-established that the use of "exotic" animals such as tigers or monkeys as performers poses real threats to their welfare. Carnival-like atmospheres are certain to be extremely stressful to cougars, lemurs, or other wild animals. These animals have very specific behavioral and environmental needs that are unlikely to ever be satisfied in the context of traveling exhibits. When such needs are not met, animals suffer. The general public is increasingly aware of this, and so such acts tend nowadays to sell themselves as "educational," but there is little evidence to support this label. There is, in fact, some evidence that the display of certain wild animals in highly humanized contexts actually harms conservation efforts.
Legislatures all over the world are taking heed of the continually growing body of knowledge about what animals need and how they suffer, and are acknowledging that their suffering matters. Many are banning circus-style animal acts for these very reasons. Very recently, nearby Plymouth, Massachusetts enacted a new bylaw to "prohibit the displaying of non-domesticated animals for public entertainment or amusement in circuses, carnivals or other similar entities." Although circus-style animal acts have traveled around the country for longer than any of us can remember, Plymouth seems to have recognized that they are not necessarily acceptable in light of what we now know. "But there's always been a lottery!" is not reason enough to carry the grim tradition on!
Not long ago, the Barnstable County Fair's website announced its exotic animal attractions for 2014: "Racing Lemurs" and "The Winners Circle Lemur Encounter". The proprietor of these acts holds a USDA-issued permit. Does this mean that his animals are safe, healthy and happy? Not necessarily. USDA/APHIS inspection reports from 2013 include the following:
*A three-year-old boy was bitten by a lemur "during a photo shoot at a travel site"
*Milk replacer intended for a pair of young kangaroos was found spoiled, stored in a 90° cabinet *A sugar glider (a small nocturnal mammal) was found "in a green plastic tote under the main stage." There were "no ventilation holes in the top or sides of the tote." The sugar glider was kept here for "approximately six hours every show day"
*Inspectors noted "a buildup of dust, dirt, debris, bedding and/or food" around the enclosures in a nighttime housing trailer Nevertheless, the "Winners Circle" proprietor still holds a USDA license in 2014. This is neither an indication of good welfare nor a guarantee of protection. According to attorney and animal advocate Deb Robinson, "the inspection and citation process is notoriously weak." A 2010 audit by the Office of the Inspector General found that "without clear and consistent standards to follow and a process that ensures that potentially dangerous conditions are identified and remedied, APHIS cannot adequately ensure the safety of the animals, or of the public who visits the various (licensed) zoos, circuses and other exhibitors..." Other audits have found ineffective enforcement, inadequate documentation of violations and minimal penalties.
Despite failing to reply to concerns expressed about the issue, the Fair seems to have passed concerns specific to this year's attractions on to the "Winners Circle" proprietor. A brief correspondence with him made it clear that his intentions are probably good; he describes himself as passionate about animal welfare and conservation. Unfortunately, however, good intentions are not enough. He was unable (or unwilling) to answer questions posed to him about how he meets his lemurs' behavioral needs. For example, scheduled to appear between 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, when are his lemurs allowed to rest, to quietly groom one another, to socialize, as they would do for hours each afternoon in the wild? What opportunities do they have to retreat from the crowds, the sounds, the smells that they will be surrounded by all day every day? Simply saying "they are used to it" or "they are happy" does not suffice, and it is irresponsible to accept such answers as sufficient.
Following concerns expressed soon after the lemur attractions were announced for 2014, the advertisement for "Racing Lemurs" was removed from the Fair's website, and the language used to describe the "Winners Circle Lemur Encounter" was altered. An inquiry about whether "Racing Lemurs" has actually been canceled remains unanswered but it seems likely that it has. This would be a step forward, but many concerns would remain unchanged.
The Fair is a fantastic summer tradition; but unnecessary, exploitative exotic animal acts seriously detract from its value. Their elimination would be a great gain for the community (and certainly for the animals). Nevertheless, all indications are that the lemurs will be on display at the Fair in their 50-foot trailer at the end of this month. They may look perfectly happy to many onlookers (although few people are likely to have much understanding about how lemurs normally behave). But if you are among those who go to see them, please do consider what has been written here. Is this really a decent life for an endangered wild animal? Is this actually the sort of "education" that Falmouth should promote?
Please, sign the petition, and join me in asking the Barnstable County Fair to change its policy and to stop exploiting exotic wild animals for good.