Controversy surrounding elephant in North Webster continues

A representative of an animal sanctuary says they never visited the Mermaid Festival’s elephant exhibit last week and would never endorse using animals for entertainment purposes.

That came after North Webster Lions Club President Mark Lawson, in an interview Monday about protesters who opposed the use of an elephant at the festival, said two groups, including Black Pine Animal Sanctuary, did not see problems with the how the animal was being treated.

Lawson said the Lions Club would probably not bring the elephant act back next year for fear it would give the festival a “black eye” after three days of protests near the elephant tent.

Liebel Family Circus operates the elephant act, which offered a chance to feed the animal for $2. Rides were $10.

Protesters believe the elephant was not being cared for well. They said they believe it looked unsteady as it walked in a small circle. They were especially bothered by the small trailer used to transport it.

Lori Gagen, executive director of Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion, said they received numerous calls and emails expressing concern last week about the condition of the elephant.

Representatives of the sanctuary sent an email to the Lions Club Thursday urging the club “to consider adopting a policy to never hire any live animal “acts” for the purpose of entertainment in the future.”

On Wednesday, a representative of the sanctuary posted on its Facebook page a copy of the Times-Union article and a clarification pointing out that it did not inspect the animal show.

Representatives of the group “would not in any way, shape or form,” condone it, Gagen said, because they oppose the use of animals for entertainment purposes.

“It’s grossly erroneous that he would claim that Black Pine was there and said anything,” Gagen said.

“We have no authority to inspect anybody,” Gagen said. “I certainly don’t want him using us as a defense for what’s going on over there.”

On Monday, Lawson said the group  “Came down and looked at it and did not see any signs of abuse.”

He also said he was told a South Bend  group who he could not identify also came down and saw no problems.

On Wednesday, when asked about Gagen’s concerns, he said he never saw representatives of the groups but was told they had been there.

Lawson declined any further comment.

Gagen said she was not surprised that the protest has forced festival organizers to reconsider using the elephant in the future.

She says an increased awareness over animal welfare issues has  created “a very loud voice” in recent years that have led many groups deciding to adjust their policies.

“These kinds of protests and the pace at which larger communities are banning live animal acts and circuses with animals is happening far and wide,” Gagen said.

The nonprofit group provides refuge for displaced, captive-raised exotic animals  and has been in existence for 22 years. They care for nearly 100 animals at its Albion facility, including 11 tigers and some wildcats, black bears, wolves and monkeys.

The refuge is east of Syracuse in Noble County.

About a dozen protesters held signs for three days near the tent. Some of the signs directed people to online websites critical of Liebel Circus practices over a long period of years involving the elephant.