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Riding Bear Back 

Amid criticism from animal welfare workers, a Florida circus returns to town.

After a 400-pound brown bear toppled out of a moving trailer and onto Interstate 10 in Metairie last April, prompting a federal probe into animal mistreatment, a Florida-based traveling circus is back in New Orleans this week.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials placed Sterling & Reid Bros. Circus under federal investigation after the incident involving "Gauika," the 9-year-old Syrian bear. The circus recently incurred a $3,250 fine for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act in an unrelated 1999 incident that originated in California, says USDA spokeswoman Laura Sanchez. She would not comment on the second investigation, saying it was still active.

The circus, scheduled to appear in City Park's Marconi Meadows this week, has racked up multiple USDA citations for non-compliance with the federal Animal Welfare Act in the past three years.

A USDA representative said the complete report on Sterling & Reid could not be made available to Gambit Weekly by presstime. But according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which posts USDA reports on its Web site, inspectors have cited Sterling & Reid for actions such as using broken hockey sticks to drive animals into the show ring; forcing animals with chronic arthritis and other health conditions to perform; and jeopardizing the safety of a group of children by allowing them near exotic cats without sufficient distance or barriers. During one USDA inspection, a tiger allegedly escaped from its tent.

The USDA noted multiple violations of inadequate food, shelter, exercise and veterinary care, according to the reports cited by PETA. In 1998, California officials confiscated eight emaciated and dehydrated ponies from Sterling & Reid, and the circus was charged with four felonies and one misdemeanor count of animal cruelty in that state. In a plea agreement, circus owner Brian Franzen pled guilty to two counts of misdemeanor animal neglect.

The three-ring circus drew more attention last year when the bear, which performs on the backs of horses, fell out of a transport trailer and landed on the westbound lanes of I-10 near Bonnabel Boulevard. Circus employees didn't notice the animal had fallen out until they stopped 20 minutes later for gas. Motorists found the bear lying on the interstate, stunned and bleeding from the mouth, and corralled it until officials arrived. The bear was taken to the Audubon Zoo, treated and released to circus personnel.

Circus spokesman Lit Droguett, speaking from Sterling & Reid's Sarasota, Fla. headquarters, downplayed the citations. "[The circus has] taken care of everything, and they have their USDA license again this year," Droguett says. "USDA isn't going to issue it if everything isn't taken care of. Every circus, from Dick and Jane to the Ringling Bros., has had citations."

Droguett didn't know whether the circus had conducted an internal investigation into the bear incident. "They're privately owned bears not owned within the circus," he says. "But they're back with the circus [this year]. I was not involved with anything there."

He says the bears are owned by a Russian family -- "I couldn't pronounce the name for you; I wouldn't even try" -- who contracts with Sterling & Reid.

The mayor's spokeswoman, Kristine Gallatig, says Sterling & Reid had applied for Temporary Use and Occupancy of Land permit and a Mayorality permit. The only criteria for the city's issuance of such permits is that the interested party "come in and pay the fee," she says. Gallatig adds that the burden is not on the city to make sure a traveling circus is in compliance with state and federal regulations.

Beth McFarland, a City Park spokeswoman, says the facility had no knowledge of any USDA violations or investigations involving Sterling & Reid. The city of New Orleans, not City Park, books the circus and issues the appropriate permits, according to McFarland. "Generally, if someone has their permits and licenses, I don't know if we could refuse them."

Jeff Dorson, an investigator with the local League in Support of Animals (LISA), says that organization has taken issue with Sterling & Reid, particularly after last year's bear incident. He says LISA will be reviewing the circus' activities in New Orleans this year.

"We're asking the public to take note of any signs of mistreatment and forward them to our office, and we will send them to the USDA," Dorson says.Burma Save

Local and national activists plan anti-Unocal actions surrounding the upcoming Energy Conference.

Visitors to the 29th Annual Energy Conference at the Sheraton Hotel this week might be in for some unexpected controversy. Sponsored by Howard Weil, the well-known local investment firm, the Energy Conference has since 1972 been a fairly staid event that brought energy companies together with hundreds of institutional investors from around the world. This year's conference might be much the same if not for promised protests surrounding Unocal, a participating Los Angeles-based oil company that is increasingly under attack over allegations of slave labor and human rights abuses at its Yadana pipeline project in Burma.

Unocal is not directly charged with the alleged abuses, which involve forcing unpaid villagers to clear dense jungles at gunpoint under threat of starvation and torture. However, activists accuse Unocal of tacitly accepting such practices by its business partner, the Burmese military government.

"Under the ruling military junta, Burma's main exports have been oil and heroin, and it takes an equally lawless approach to both," says Heidi Quante of EarthRights International, a San Francisco-based human rights organization that is working with local activist groups including the Louisiana Free Burma Coalition and Citizens for Corporate Responsibility.

Unocal's critics scored an initial victory on March 5, when Federal District Court Judge Ronald S.W. Lew ruled in favor of a request by a group of Burmese workers that their claims be heard in a California state court. In his opinion, Judge Lew found that "the evidence does suggest that Unocal knew forced labor was being utilized," and that "the military forced Plaintiffs and others, under threat of violence, to work on Unocal's pipeline projects for days at a time."

Unocal (formerly Union Oil of California) has denied the charges. In an interview with NPR reporter Daniel Zwerdling on March 10, Unocal vice-chairman John Imle said he was aware that "conscripted labor is used routinely for civic projects in that country," but did not believe it was also used on the Unocal project. "I just don't believe those stories," he said. Acknowledging that the purpose of the venture with the Burmese government was "to make a profit," he said that "as a condition, Unocal will only invest in places where we can improve the lives of the people."

New Orleans writer Whitney Stewart, author of Aung San Suu Kyi: Fearless Voice of Burma, a biography of Burma's pro-democracy leader, says she finds that hard to believe. "If Unocal were really interested in bettering people's lives, there certainly must be more credible business partners than a Burmese military regime that has routinely jailed anyone who dared speak out against it," she says. Aung San Suu Kyi had been held under house arrest for 6 years, Stewart says, and her movements and speech are still strictly curtailed by the military. Stewart adds that she believes the political leader might have been silenced by now had it not been for international media scrutiny.

Quante says activists are still finalizing just how they intend to protest. Plans are also being closely guarded out of concern for counter-protests. Despite any controversy, it has been business as usual in the offices of the Howard Weil Energy Conference. "We don't know anything about any protests," says conference planner Mary Alice Allen, "but we don't expect our conference to be affected."


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