I saw the tent being pitched and anxiously waited to see the wonderful animals that would soon be on display in South Venice.
Traveling zoos remind me of being a youngster and visiting the zoo with my parents and siblings. It was a day trip that we always looked forward to as children. Later, when I had my own children, I made sure we took similar trips at least once a year to see the animals and give my kids the same experience.
So when the Jungle Safari pulled into town, I was ready to relive the fond memories I had of those days. What I saw instead on repeated visits saddened me.
Maybe I was seeing with different eyes, but the wonderment of it all was gone.
A realization hit me that a traveling zoo is not the same as a zoo at all.
I saw large animals that were unable to run, raise their heads up and in one case, unable to turn around at all in their cages.
Some were standing in their own feces because they had nowhere else to go.
I saw a tiger cub repeatedly return to an empty water dish while several other cages had no water dish at all.
When David Hadley, 44, saw the roadside traveling zoo at the Venice Village Shoppes at U.S. 41 and Jacaranda Boulevard, he traded in his beach and house-hunting time for some protest time.
Creating a makeshift sign out of foam board, the Army veteran stood at the roadside garnering support from fellow animal lovers.
Among the honks of approval, however, were shouts of profanity and displays of obscene gestures. Hadley, a former airborne combat medic in the Army, stood firm.
“I have a right to protest, it’s a freedom of speech and I earned that right,” said Hadley, who suffers from a painful hip. With his walking cane and Luna, his rescued border collie mix, Hadley remained undaunted.
The Jungle Safari traveling zoo is owned and operated by Robert Engesser.
“It was my parents’ zoo, and now it is mine,” said Engesser, referring to the original owners as the Luce family.
Soon Hadley was joined by Englewood sisters Nicole Miers, 17, and Tiffany Miers-Pandolfi, 21.
Later, Venice MCC student Monica Moore, 18, joined the group with her own homemade sign.
“I’m a big animal lover and I don’t like to see animals trapped unfairly. They deserve a chance to be in their own habitat and have a happy life,” Moore said.
A state wildlife inspector visited the setup in South Venice and found no violations.
For nearly 11 months out of the year, the animals travel from parking lot to parking lot throughout the South.
A typical day requires them to stand from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. in small cages directly on pavement.
Engesser acknowledged that the protesters had a right to share their feelings but defended the zoo’s ability to expose kids to exotic creatures.
“I believe that the protesters are entitled to their opinion. But it’s a chance for kids to see animals they wouldn’t otherwise see. It’s a family thing. The protesters just don’t like to see animals in cages and they don’t like to see them spend their lives like that,” Engesser said.
But not so for North Port protester Holly Carver, who also joined the group objecting to the roadside menagerie.
“I do support zoos, but this is a whole different thing. I don’t believe it’s right for animals to be traveling in small environments. They can’t move around. It’s not much of a life for them,” Carver said sadly.
In his defense, Engesser added, “We are taking and raising these animals from babies, and they are used to captivity. They are used to it and comfortable with it. It’s not like we are taking them from the wild and putting them in captivity. They don’t have that stress factor.”
Maybe not, except for one small cub who had a noticeable mark on his forehead. A caretaker said the cub had been banging its head against its cage again and again.
“I’m here as a moral decision to stop the cruelty that the animals are subjected to. In 2007, it’s just unacceptable in our society,” said Hadley.
If you suspect that an animal is being abused or mistreated, there are a number of people and places to call.
Among them are Kelly Jo Ernst of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Domestic Animal Issues and Abuse Department at (757) 622-7382, Ext. 1346; the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Animal Cruelty Actionline at (800) 555-6517 or the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office at 861-9500.