By HEATHER ALLEN
VENICE — No, it isn’t a mirage.
Yes, that is a camel milling about the Venice Village Shoppes at U.S. 41 and Jacaranda Boulevard.
The one-humped camel, along with a white tiger, black leopard, kangaroo, baboon, llama and other assorted animals, is part of a traveling petting zoo and animal exhibit that roams from town to town.
Their presence has piqued the interest of many and drawn the ire of some who worry about the welfare of the animals.
While it may or may not be cruel, one thing is certain: A camel outside a strip mall is certainly unusual.
“The camel is a pretty cool guy,” said Robert Engesser, who owns the animals and runs the exhibit, called “Jungle Safari.”
Engesser breeds animals that are near extinction and also operates The Zoo, an animal rescue in Trenton, a town of nearly 1,800 about 30 miles east of Gainesville.
“It’s like New Jersey, but a lot smaller,” he said.
The exhibit will stay put until Sunday. Then, Engesser and his animals will be off to Fort Myers. The proceeds from pony and camel rides pay for the facility in Trenton, which takes in animals that can no longer be cared for by their owners. The $8.50-a-pop photos with baby tigers and lions are another money-maker.
“When do you ever get a chance to hold a wild animal baby?” asked Linda Minton, 34, of Venice, who could not resist the lion and tiger cubs. “It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
David Hadley, however, will not be posing with cubs or ponies anytime soon. He decided to sit in front of the exhibit on U.S. 41 instead, a poster in his lap that read “Cruel and Inhumane” in red magic marker.
“These are appalling conditions,” said Hadley, 44. “The time — if there was ever a time — for roadside zoos has long passed.”
He intends to contact each shop manager in the shopping plaza to voice his disgust with Engesser’s operation.
Engesser knows that some people disapprove of the exhibit.
But after 24 years of breeding and working with animals, he is used to answering the critics.
“Any time kids, religion or animals are involved, people will have a real tender response,” he said. “I really enjoy caring for animals.”
Last modified: January 12. 2007 6:11AM