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Exotic animals on the auctioneer's block. Animal-welfare people scrutinize amusement park's sale

By Mary Jo HillStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 10, 1987

Hudson, N.H.

The auctioneer's tongue is ricocheting off the inside of his mouth as he starts off pleading top dollar for the trio of elephants - Queen, Elizabeth, and Jackie. But none of the buyers in the crowd are responding to the initial asking price, even after a farewell performance by the three elephants at Playworld Amusement Park.

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Very few of the people crowded into the ringside bleachers at Playworld (formerly Benson's Animal Park) are children. The 64-year-old amusement and animal park has closed down, and today the crowd is all business - considering just how high they'll go to buy one of the hundreds of animals, reptiles, and birds being auctioned off.

Mingling with the buying public are some people with very different intentions, however. These representatives from animal protection groups and government agencies regulating exotic animals are concerned that some of the animals for sale will end up as targets on private game ranches or prove to be too much for their new owners to handle. They are monitoring the auction, keeping track of which animal will go home with what bidder.

It's hard to tell who is buying for a petting zoo, backyard, or game ranch, or just here hoping for a bargain on a memento. Men in trucker's caps and plaid wool jackets lean back on their heels and scrutinize peahens in cages. Fur coats accessorized with designer handbags are sprinkled throughout the audience.

Arthur Provencher, Playworld's owner, is listening intently to the bidding on the elephants, as he leans against a doorway on a nearby building. The elephants will bring in the highest price of the day. The white-haired owner is depending on this sale to recoup a portion of the money he has invested in the park over the past nine years.

An unresponsive crowd brought the asking price for the elephants down to $50,000, and now the auctioneer has wheedled the bidders up to $65,000. The loudspeakers fall silent as he makes his last call. But Mr. Provencher won't see the $85,000 minimum he expected from the sale.

Queen and Elizabeth are Asian elephants, an endangered species. Owners are required to have a United States Fish and Wildlife Service permit. They must prove that the animals will be used either for educational programs or to perpetuate the species' survival before they receive a permit.

David Herbet, a captive-wildlife specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, says that the term ``educational program'' is being translated loosely. ``You can go into a circus that has Asian elephants and they're carrying around somebody on their back. Is that educational?'' Mr. Herbet asks. Usually circuses work around the law by including a few sentences in a brochure which mention that the elephants are an endangered species, he says.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), US Fish and Wildlife Service, Humane Society, and other animal protection groups have representatives at the auction. They are carefully writing down each bidder's number, so they can track where the animal goes after leaving the park.

``There's not a whole lot of control at the auction,'' says John Dommers, regional director of the Humane Society of the United States. ``We try to let people ahead know that these animals are coming.''

If the animal ends up in an unsuitable living facility, the USDA will try to work with the new owner to improve the situation. Fines can be levied, and animals have been taken away when an owner wouldn't cooperate with the agency.

``This, unfortunately, happens far too infrequently,'' says Herbet. Budget cuts have resulted in understaffing at the USDA, and the government agency sometimes has to be prodded along, he says.