Price Chopper pulls big-cat show sponsorship

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Price Chopper pulls big-cat show sponsorship

August 28, 2009
By Sam Hemingway
Free Press Staff Writer

ESSEX JUNCTION — The Price Chopper supermarket chain has pulled its sponsorship of the Nerger Lion and Tigers act at the Champlain Valley Exposition, but the animal show will go on anyway when the fair opens its 10-day run today.

“We were misled by the fair,” said Mona Golub, Price Chopper’s vice president for public relations, said Friday. “We were led to believe we were sponsoring something along the lines of a petting zoo, not a show with big, caged animals.”

Golub said the Schenectady, N.Y-based supermarket chain, which is a major advance ticket marketer for the fair, was concerned its image might be tarnished if it was associated with a show involving animals that many people believe belong in the wild. She is the daughter of Price Chopper President Neil Golub.

“We’re concerned whenever our integrity is questioned in any way, shape or form,” Mona Golub said. “We are an advocate for animals. A good portion of our business supports the health and happiness of animals.”

The 12 tigers and one lion slated to perform at the fair belong to Hawthorn Corp., an Illinois company that has been fined and cited a number of times over the years by the federal Agriculture Department for its caging, training and care of large animals.

Golub said Price Chopper pulled the plug on its sponsorship earlier this week after getting three calls from people in the Burlington area complaining about the show and the supermarket chain’s sponsoring of it.

Fair spokesman Richard Lewis said Friday that the fair stood behind the Nerger animal act. He also said fair officials did not mislead Price Chopper about what the show involved.

“When we talked to Price Chopper, we told them we would not have the petting zoo this year and that instead we would have an educational big cat show,” Lewis said. “They agreed to that.” Price Chopper had sponsored the petting zoo exhibit at the fair in the past.

Lewis said the fair would absorb any loss in funding for the shows that Price Chopper’s sponsorship would have provided. The show is staged three times a day, at 11 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Juergen and Judit Nerger, the husband-and-wife trainers who run the act, said the animals in the show were all born in captivity and live longer, healthier lives than if they were in the wild.

The Nergers, both employees of Hawthorn Corp, also said they do not harm the animals in order to make them perform.

“It takes a lot of patience, a lot of treats,” Judit Nerger said as she stood outside the pen for a 3-month-old tiger cub at the fair Friday afternoon. “You never mistreat an animal like that. The training methods these days have nothing to do what they did 20 or 25 years ago.”

Juergen Nerger said he’s irritated by criticism he gets from animal rights organizations like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and nodded at two tigers lying side by side in a cage, their legs draped over each other.

“PETA can not tell you when an animal is happy,” he said. “No one can say at what time an animal is really happy. It’s only a feeling us humans have when we look at them and we say they are happy.”

The Rev. Gary Kowalski of the Burlington Unitarian and Universalist Church, one of the three people who contacted Price Chopper about the animal show, said it is wrong to turn lions and tigers into a form of entertainment for humans.

“These animals are caged and shipped from town to town 11 months a year,” Kowalski said. “They are not like domestic pets or tamed creatures. They do not have any natural impulse to bond with humans.”

Kowalski said a protest planned for Sunday at a local Price Chopper store has been canceled, but that he and others would conduct a protest of the Nerger Lion and Tiger act just outside the fair gates this morning at 10 a.m.

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