As pressure mounts to rid Greeley, Weld County of exotic animal acts, officials shrug off criticism
May 24, 2017
About the Wild Animal Sanctuary
Established in 1980, the Wild Animal Sanctuary near Keenesburg is now the largest nonprofit sanctuary dedicated exclusively to rescuing captive exotic and endangered large carnivores. The 720-acre site is home to more than 400 animals, including 55 tigers, 70 African lions, 110 black bears and more than 40 grizzly bears.
A harrowing video of a tiger attacking its trainer, and another trainer rushing to intervene made the internet rounds in October 2016.
Vicenta Pages with Pages' White Tiger Show, was OK, despite being dragged a few feet by her leg. Fellow trainer David Donnert also escaped unscathed. But it could have been worse.
In his haste to get into the pen where Vicenta was working, David left the door to the pen open.
In its Summer 2017 newsletter, the Wild Animal Sanctuary near Keenesburg highlighted this scene, which took place in Pensacola, Fla., as yet another example of the need to end exotic animal shows.
That the attack came just a few months after Pages' White Tiger Show appeared at the Greeley Stampede punctuated the animal advocacy and rescue organization's point.
Officials from the sanctuary this spring have done more than write about it; they've approached the Island Grove Advisory Committee and Greeley City Council with a request to ban exotic animal shows from Island Grove and Greeley.
That request was dismissed.
Island Grove Advisory Committee members took issue with banning the acts in one location. When Mayor Pro Tem John Gates, who is on that committee, brought it up during an April 18 Greeley City Council meeting, there was no appetite for a citywide ban from any city council member. Gates chose his position carefully.
"The only way I would have agreed to it was if we looked at it as a citywide ordinance," Gates said. "But, to be fair, I wasn't recommending that. I just laid it out to the council."
There won't be a tiger show at this year's Stampede, which begins June 23. But Wild Animal Sanctuary spokesman Kent Drotar said development is more the result of coincidence than advocacy on the part of the sanctuary.
Stampede officials confirmed that Wednesday.
"We rotate our Kids Coral attractions every year," Stampede General Manager Justin Watada said. "We try not to bring back any attractions (every year)."
Watada, who is a nonvoting member of the Island Grove Advisory Committee, said Stampede officials were aware of the Pages' White Tiger Show incident in Florida, saying they discussed the incident with the promoter the Stampede works with.
As for considering a ban on exotic animal acts at future Stampede events, Watada said Stampede officials rely on the promoter to help bring acts and give advice on what shows are popular.
David Musselman, with Capitol International Productions, is that promoter, and he made clear upon which side of the issue he stood.
"All these 'animal rights' people have done is line their pockets and put millions in their retirements on the backs of donations from folks who think they care about animals," Mussleman said in an email. "From what we have found, they could or already have destroyed more animals than anyone in history."
The Wild Animal Sanctuary has rescued more than 1,000 captive animals in its nearly 40-year history, and it currently houses more than 400 animals, including 55 tigers and 70 lions. The animals have ample room to roam on the sprawling, 720-acre property. Drotar said that's exactly what they need.
"The owners, they're going to tell you they take great care of (the animals)," Drotar said. "They do on one level: They're fed well, and they have great water. But it's such an unnatural way to live; they're in small cages, moved from place to place. There's no sense of home, and they very rarely have natural substrate under their feet."
Vicenta, in an interview with The Tribune during last year's Stampede, said her family cares deeply for the animals, and they view the tiger shows as an educational opportunity — a chance for families to learn about conservation.
Similar arguments have been used by a variety of animal show promoters, including Sea World, which in the fall of 2015 announced sweeping changes to its orca acts designed to make the acts more natural and more educational.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey hosted its last circus Sunday in Uniondale, N.Y., closing after 146 years.
Musselman said there is fear and concern the trend could continue, and he laments the potential loss of livelihood among exotic animal owners.
"Without a way to show their animals, they won't have the funds to protect and care for them and provide the source of rescue they have been able to provide in the past," Musselman said.
Rob Boso, another agent at Capitol International Production, said the closure of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey could boost the presence of exotic animal acts at fairs.
"The fair market's going to get flooded with a lot of acts," Boso said.
Boso said although they occasionally encounter activists, the company hasn't had many issues with cities or municipalities banning acts.
"People love them," Boso said.
For his part, Weld County Commissioner Steve Moreno, who also is an Island Grove Advisory Committee member, said he was concerned about a slippery slope. Would horses and other livestock eventually be considered exotic animals, and would that eventually put an end to Greeley's oldest tradition, the Greeley Stampede Rodeo?
Drotar said the fear is unfounded.
"We're not trying to shut down the rodeo," he said. "Those are work animals that have a role in our agricultural society."
Drotar would like Weld County and Greeley to be a part of the changing tide of history, as well.
"Let's do something new and different and lead the way," Drotar said. "There's kind of an irony that the largest, oldest carnivore sanctuary in the world has this going on in its backyard."
Tyler Silvy covers city and council government for The Greeley Tribune. Connect with him at Facebook.com/TylerSilvy or @TylerSilvy on Twitter.