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VENTURA COUNTY FOCUS | WEST COUNTY / VENTURA

Animal Rights Group Protests Outside Circus

April 14, 1998|DAWN HOBBS

Animal rights protesters were allowed to continue handing out leaflets against the alleged inhumane treatment of circus animals after police determined they were not trespassing at the Ventura County Fairgrounds on Monday.

The management of the Sterling and Reid Bros. Circus called the Ventura Police Department when three protesters from the Animal Defense League arrived shortly before the 5:30 p.m. show.

The protesters carried signs with pictures of chained animals and the slogans "Are Broken Spirits Fun?" and "Circuses. You Choose. They Can't."

Cornell Nicholas, circus superintendent, defended his company's treatment of its animal performers.

"These animals are well taken care of," he said. "They live longer in captivity than they do in the wild. Especially now with rain forest problems."

Jerry Vlasak, one of the three protesters, quietly offered families informational fliers as they walked through the gates. Most people took the fliers without comment and proceeded to stand in line to pay their admission.

"It's disturbing," said April Aviles, 11. "It's true some people don't take care of animals right, but the animals do have a right to entertain people."

Mark Zelman, supervisor of security at Seaside Park, where the fairgrounds are located, said he "agree[s] with a lot of what they say" but told the protesters they needed to fill out a form to continue distributing the fliers.

"The last I checked, it wasn't necessary to fill out an application for free speech in America," Vlasak said.

Ventura police officials agreed.

"We'll let them hold their signs up as long as they are not creating any problems," said Sgt. John Garner. "They are not trespassing and they do not need to fill out a 1st Amendment form. It's valid fairgrounds policy to ask them to do it, but it's not something they can compel them to do."

During a similar protest at Sunday night's show, 10 to 12 circus employees surrounded the protesters and tried to take away their signs and fliers, Vlasak said.

Darlene Toulin-Daly, 34, of Florida, was given a ticket on suspicion of battery, but was not booked, after physically escorting a protester from the premises.

"It's hard to justify physically putting your hands on anybody . . . but according to witnesses, it looked like the protesters were clearly the aggressors," Garner said.

Vlasak disputes that account, saying that Toulin-Daly ran up behind protester Pamelyn Ferdin, "grabbed her hair and punched her two times in the head."

Vlasak, who videotaped the incident, said he plans to submit a copy of the tape to authorities for possible prosecution.

Two weeks ago during a performance in San Bernardino, the same circus had a run-in with the Humane Society of San Bernardino Valley, which demanded that the circus surrender four ponies into protective custody, saying that they were emaciated.

"A couple of them were literally walking skeletons," said Todd Lurie, an investigator for the Humane Society, who added that he plans to file four counts of animal cruelty next week against Brian Franzen, one of the owners of the circus.

"Circus life is a miserable life for any animal, to be made to live chained in a cage and then perform acts for people's pleasure," Lurie said.

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