By Haven Orecchio-Egresitz
Posted Jul. 19, 2016 at 9:29 PM
Updated Jul 20, 2016 at 7:01 AM
FALMOUTH — A traveling sea lion exhibit currently featured at the Barnstable County Fair was cited in May by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act, raising concerns among animal welfare advocates and scholars who are calling for fair organizers to stop the show.“It just completely goes against the basic nature of what animals need,” said Laura Hagen, deputy director of advocacy for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “The USDA standards are very basic survival standards. The bar is very, very low.”But fair organizers and the company that puts on the sea lion show say the problems cited by the USDA were either fixed or never existed.Video: Trainers lead Sea Lion Splash show at county fairAt the time of a routine inspection in May, Squalus Inc.’s Sea Lion Splash show was performing at Heritage Park in Simpsonville, South Carolina, according to a federal inspection report.FederalinfractionsLisa Macelderry, a veterinarian inspecting the exhibit, noted that the five sea lions were kept in a pool 41 square feet smaller than required by law and three of them had painful eye conditions. There were no records of the animals receiving required semiannual care and at the time of the inspection, three animals — Zoey, Lily, and Kitty — were squinting or keeping an eye closed.Photos: Sea lion show at Barnstable fair“These are signs of obvious discomfort and painful eye conditions,” Macelderry wrote in the report. “During most of this inspection, Zoey (13 year old California sea lion) was holding her right eye closed. There is no record of any veterinary consultation or initiation of medical treatment.”There was a record of a veterinarian visit in February, in which the doctor noted titers of Leptospirosis in both Zoey and Kitty and recommended further testing. There is no indication there were follow-up diagnostics, according to the inspection report.The USDA found the two caretakers in the travel exhibit were not adequately trained in animal welfare as they didn’t recognize or report the eye conditions, kept incomplete medical records and were treating the water with chemicals without using measured amounts, according to the report. Both employees had bite or slash marks on their arms from the animals, according to the report.The problems cited in the May inspection report were rectified before Barnstable County Fair organizers allowed the group to perform this year, according to Craig Orsi, a spokesman for the fair.“The Barnstable County Fair only allows acts on its grounds that carry all relevant federal, state and local certifications,” said Wendy Brown, general manager of the Barnstable County Fair, in a statement.Marco Peters, who owns Squalus Inc., said the health concerns mentioned in the inspection report were unfounded, but the caretakers were “completely retrained,” after the inspection.“A lot of the things with the eye problems were not correct from the inspector,” Peters said. “We had a marine ophthalmologist come in the next week and none of the animals needed any medication.”Another USDA inspection of Squalus conducted in Louisville, Kentucky, in June resulted in no citations.Brooke Aldrich, who lives part of the year in Falmouth, grew up attending the fair and described it as a “big part” of her childhood. In 2013, Aldrich, now a primatologist and specialist in animal welfare, wanted to return to the fair, but before she did she wanted to make sure the captive animal exhibits had been phased out.To her surprise, they weren’t.That year the fair featured an act called “The Amazing Rainforest Experience,” which included a tiger that looked emaciated and several monkeys, according to Aldrich. Aldrich wrote her first letter to fair organizers that year asking them to reconsider the animal exhibit. She also wrote to Falmouth selectmen, but her concerns “fell on deaf ears,” she said. In 2014, she wrote them again about a lemur exhibit and again no action was taken, she said.Her main concern with the citations from May is that the sea lions may have had Leptospirosis, which can be transmitted to humans, Aldrich said. After the shows, members of the audience are allowed to come up to the sea lions and pose for photographs with the animals giving them a kiss on their cheek.Without treatment, Leptospirosis can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — better known as PETA — has also raised concerns about the traveling show and issued an alert urging people to not support the fair, according to Brittany Peet, an attorney and the director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement at PETA Foundation.While PETA has been looking into Squalus for the past two years because of USDA violations, their interest peaked when a former employee recently reached out the group claiming to have routinely witnessed animal abuse and neglect, Peet said.The witness claimed the owners of Sea Lion Splash regularly struck sea lions with poles and pipes during training sessions and, on one occasion, left six sea lions in a single tank for three days during transport without feeding the animals or changing their water, Peet said.Sea lion trainer Ian Fuller, who led the 4:40 p.m. show with his partner, Marisol Martinez, on Tuesday, disputed the claims made by PETA and said that all of the sea lions, which travel from city to city in an indoor pool, are well cared for and are trained only through positive reinforcement.“They’re like our dogs,” Fuller said after the show, adding that sea lions live longer in captivity than in the wild. “It’s the best job in the world.”The alleged whistleblower who claimed abuse to PETA has not reached out to the MSPCA, according to Hagen, who said the group just recently became involved and is working with local advocates to urge fair organizers not to host captive animal exhibits.Cambridge, Plymouth, Somerville, Weymouth, Quincy, Revere, Braintree and Provincetown have all banned the display of exotic animals in circuses, she said.In towns where the exhibits are allowed, the MSPCA is limited in how it can respond because the shows are licensed through the USDA, which must enforce the federal regulations, she said. A warrant is required to inspect the venue specifically for animal cruelty, Hagen said.The USDA enforces the Animal Welfare Act through unannounced inspections, said R. Andre Bell, a spokesman for the agency. There is no open investigation into Squalus Inc., Bell said.“If the noncompliance items cited on an inspection report are of a serious enough nature, the agency will begin an investigation into the matter,” Bell said. “If that investigation determines that Animal Welfare Act violations did occur, the agency will issue an enforcement/penalty action.”But a vast majority of citations don’t result in enforcement, said Delcianna Winders, an Academic Fellow of Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School who studies USDA enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act.
A December 2014 audit of the USDA by the Office of Inspector General found that penalties issued in 2012 were reduced by 86 percent from the law’s maximum penalty even though the cases resulted in death and other egregious violations, according to the report. For every $10,000 penalty, violators pay about $1,400 dollars in fines, Winders said.
“This is a longstanding issue that the Office of Inspector General has raised multiple times in the past. Unfortunately, even since this most recent audit, my analysis has shown that penalties continue to be steeply discounted,” Winders said. “The problem is aggravated by the fact that the agency insists on keeping the penalty worksheets secret.”
Peters, of Squalus Inc., said Tuesday he has received no penalties for the May citations.
— Follow Haven Orecchio-Egresitz on Twitter: @HavenCCT.