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August 28, 2009

Calling Off the Dogs on the Big Cats at the Champlain Valley Expo

Meow! Talk about a nasty stink rising out of the litter box at the Champlain Valley Expo. The Burlington-area supermarket chain Price Chopper has pulled its sponsorship of a wild-animal act at the Expo known as the "Nerger Lion and Tiger Show." According to a company spokesperson, Price Chopper was "misled" as to the true nature of the animal act and was under the false impression that it was sponsoring a petting zoo. You know, the kind of "pets" that'll gnaw off a toddler's tibia.

Local animal rights activists praised the PC decision and called off a protest planned for this weekend. Burlington animal rights activist Rev. Gary Kowalski has organized demonstrations against the Nerger show because its parent company, the Hawthorn Corporation, leases exotic animals to traveling circuses and shows worldwide. Kowalski points to the corporation's $275,000 in fines racked up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for gross violations of the Federal Animal Welfare Act.

The animal rights group PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — has a rap sheet on the Hawthorn Corporation longer than an elephant's trunk. Its abuses, which date back to 1978, include failure to provide animals with adequate veterinary care, food or water, and criminal convictions for cruelty. In 1994, for instance, one Hawthorn elephant went on a rampage in Hawaii, crushing its trainer and injuring two other circus workers before being brought down by police in a hail of gunfire. An autopsy later revealed the presence of cocaine and alcohol in the elephant's body. Now, there's wholesome family fun!

This isn't the first time controversy has swirled over a wild-animal show at the Champlain Valley Expo. Back in 2004, the fair hosted the Bear Mountain Wildlife Encounter. Fair goers were able to "encounter" the bears "in their natural-looking, climate-controlled habitat" — aka, an air-conditioned, sawdust-filled doublewide — and witness their "natural behaviors," such as riding bicycles, dunking basketballs, standing on their hindquarters for extended stretches and fantasizing, perhaps, about eating that kid in the front row with the mustard-stained T-shirt.

Such wild-animal acts aren't allowed in Burlington anymore. In 2004, the Burlington City Council passed ban on shows involving wild and undomesticated animals. At the time, Burlington's animal control officer Jodi Harvey said her department shouldn't be put in the position of allowing these shows. Specifically, if she witnessed violations of the Federal Animal Welfare Act, there's just no place in the city to house a confiscated lion, tiger or elephant. 

I was living in Honolulu when that horrific elephant rampage took place. It changed A LOT of minds--forever--about circuses and the use of wild animals for "entertainment," from the police officers who killed the elephant to those who saw the nightmarish story unfold on the news. IIRC, the Honolulu City Council subsequently enacted some sort of ban on animal acts. The Blaisdell Center, where this happened, is right in the middle of the city. As awful as the episode was, the human carnage could have been much worse.

I'm stunned that this company is still in business, and still allowed to traffic in wild animals. And why isn't there a statewide ban on such barbaric stuff? Aren't fried Oreos, gigantic veggie displays, pie-eating contests and barf-tastically scary rides enough to have a Really Awesome Fair?

You can learn the sordid facts about the Nerger Lion and Tiger Show at

There you'll find a link to U.S.D.A. veterinary inspection reports that document Judit and Juergen Nerger's mishandling and mistreatment of their animals, from confining tigers in illegally small cages to feeding them fly-infested food to safety violations of the Animal Welfare Act that potentially endanger the public.

The Fair's reaction to this information is a blithe assurance that all their animals are well cared for. And why doubt the managers of the Fair?

Well, they did mislead Price Chopper, according to CEO and President of the supermarket chain Neil Golub, who says the Fair pitched the show he was asked to sponsor as a "petting zoo." He was "horrified" to learn his company's good name and funding were associated with a wild animal act.

The truth is, no circus animals are well cared for. It's not just a case of the Nergers being bad apples, but of the whole industry being rotten to the core. That's why the ASPCA, the Humane Society of United States, and every other reputable animal welfare organization in the country condemn shows that feature elephants, big cats and dancing bears. This type of "entertainment" is inherently cruel and inhumane.

Hopefully residents of Essex Junction and Essex will begin to contact their Trustees and Select Board to demand a stop to these circus travesties--and enact a ban like the ordinance Burlington passed back in 2004.


And I'm sure that Mr. Kowalski normally accepts everything Price Chopper says as the truth, right? "And why doubt the [delete:] managers of the Fair? [insert:] management of Price Chopper?"

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