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

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.

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.

Good Samaritans and game ranches worry the Humane Society more than the buyers of endangered species, though. Exotic animals that aren't endangered or threatened and will be kept for personal use are not subject to federal regulation. And, since the owner is responsible for obtaining any state or local permits, animals can be kept illegally.

David Trenholl was hoping to take llamas, peafowl, and fallow deer home to his small farm in Fitchburg, Mass. He planned to breed the deer and use their offspring for venison. Although the Humane Society doesn't approve of this goal, there isn't a federal regulation that it can use to prevent it. Documenting the need for stiffer regulations is a long process, according to Herbet.

``I think the weak link in the system is that there is a chance that even with the safeguards, an animal can end up in the wrong hands,'' says Peter Saunders, an agent for the New Hampshire Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The amusement park was a commercial venture, and the animals are being sold commercially in an auction, he points out. ``They just sold a mountain lion for $150. Price alone shouldn't be the only criterion for where some of these animals end up.''

Provencher says that auctioning the animals was his only option. Holding the animals until the best-qualified buyer made an offer was not an alternative for Playworld's owner. ``I can't afford to house them for another year. It'll cost me a million dollars. I just can't do it.''

``Costs go up every year, but nothing else does. Attendance stays the same,'' according to Alicia Nurmikko, who has been caring for the animals at the park for the past six years.

Ms. Nurmikko says the animals are well cared for, thanks to a dedicated staff. ``You work seven days a week and days off are unheard of,'' she says. ``If you start to go home at night and an animal is sick, you clock out and then come back and work. It's like taking care of children. Are you going to scrimp on the time you spend on them?''

In the end, the trio of elephants were bought by Frank Thompson, an exotic-animal broker for zoos and private collectors. He bought them for a multimillionaire who loved the circus so much he went into the business. The elephants' home will be a Chicago suburb, but they will be booked for Shrine circus acts throughout the country.

Mr. Thompson, a former zoo director, says that circus elephants can meet the requirements of the endangered-species act for propagation. ``Elephants can travel with the circus and reproduce and breed. Circus elephants generally are in better condition because they exercise,'' he says. But he admits that a lack of male Asian elephants (who are noted for their difficult dispositions) in circuses limits propagation of the species.

The elephants will probably be the only animals Thompson ended up buying at the auction. He only had ``a casual interest'' in some of the pythons up for grabs. But Thompson was disappointed that an interview with a television reporter made him miss the sale of a male snow leopard, an endangered species. Although such buying opportunities are rare in the consumer market of exotic animals, the leopard went for only $118, a price Thompson called ``almost insulting.'' Zoos that would normally be interested in the leopard weren't represented at the sale, because they disapprove of auctioning off animals, he says.

``Everything is priced backwards up here - a snow leopard goes for $118 ... and $325 for an iguana, that's outrageous!'' he says. ``At the tropical fish farm at home in Florida you can get iguanas for $10 apiece.''

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