Josh Shaffer

Protester disrupts traveling zoo at Lumberton mall

Armed with a camera phone, William Nievaart strode into the Jungle Safari tent pitched temporarily in a shopping mall parking lot, and aimed the lens at a pair of ponies hitched to a kiddie-ride carousel.

“You can see they’re having a hell of a good time,” Nievaart said as his camera rolled, “standing there with a saddle on them.”

Then he turned the lens on a listless monkey, a caged kangaroo and a tiger cub stretched out inside a rolling cart.

“Caged up,” he said, his commentary rolling on. “So people can look at them and say, ‘Oh, there’s a tiger.’ But for what?”

Then Nievaart turned to the spectators under the tent, some of them petting a cow, and hollered this rhetorical question:

“Hey, everybody! I just need your attention for one second. Raise your hand if you think these animals want to be here, and enjoy being in cages and exploited and enslaved?”

I bring this incident to your attention only partially to knock a zoo that puts big cats on display on the asphalt of Biggs Park Mall, but also to mull over Nievaart’s method of protest. I admire him for his chutzpah, but I also see how this sort of activism can be counterproductive. So I ask, at what point is it acceptable to be obnoxious?

Nievaart, who tells me he is 36 and medically retired from the Army, is the co-founder of the Raleigh branch of the group Collectively Free. On its website, the group describes itself as working toward total animal liberation through highly creative, nonviolent actions. In March, Nievaart’s co-founder, Jacob Martin, got arrested in New York for disrupting the Easter service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, exclaiming, “When we use and kill trillions of innocent animals for food, fashion, testing, and other purposes, we have morally failed as a culture.”

Worshippers at St. Patrick’s thought Martin and the other protesters being dragged out of the church were terrorists. In Lumberton, the crowd at Jungle Safari reacted to Nievaart as though he were wearing a sandwich board and predicting the end of the world. They scattered when he launched into his tirade, pulling their toddlers behind them. Nievaart kept at it for several minutes while staff members escorted him out of the tent, putting a hand over his lens and threatening to call police.

“You need to leave, sir.”

“Look at that tiger over there! That tiger is in distress!”

Jungle Safari has drawn fire from better-known animal activists in the past. PETA called it a “notorious animal abuser,” condemning traveling zoos for their tiny cages and easily-spread bacteria.

Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have noted several more deficiencies. In 2011, they reported Jungle Safari placed lion cubs directly in children’s laps for photographs. That same year, they found a monkey biting her tail, which had extensive hair loss – a condition Jungle Safari said had gone on for two years. Last year, they reported leopards being given medication that had expired five years earlier.

I called Robert Engesser, who owns the zoo, and he told me his animals are hand-raised inside much larger enclosures, and that the tours lasting four or five weeks are designed to raise money for their care. The animals all know their handlers, he said, and aren’t experiencing any stress. “Some people,” he said, “no matter what we do, if we have an animal in captivity, they’re going to have a problem with it.”

As to Nievaart’s protest, he said, “All he was doing was standing in a crowded place and ranting and disturbing the peace. He didn’t bother to ask about anything.”

Fair point. But I guess I’m part of Engesser’s “some people.” I think that traveling parking-lot zoos make money by letting people gawk at nature and that they show no respect for the natural world where these animals thrive. I see them, and I think of King Kong chained on a stage. Jungle Safari describes its animal display as an educational experience for people who live too far from a real zoo. And maybe some kids in Lumberton have never seen a kangaroo before. But still, they’re keeping some pretty majestic beasts in small metal cages and charging for photos.

But the real question for me, and why I’m really bringing this all to your attention, concerns when extreme forms of activism are OK. When is it all right to disrupt somebody’s completely legal good time for the sake of a cause, or to barge into a Easter church service ringing an alarm bell that’s totally unrelated to the hour of worship?

I don’t think there’s a hard and fast standard. Nievaart’s stunt got my attention. I thought it was bold and wanted to share it.

But maybe I’m a hypocrite. I don’t like protesters blocking women’s health clinics. I don’t care for spray-painting slogans on monuments. And if I’m wrong in this column, I’d hate to see any of you screaming outside my window. I’d rather you just wrote me a letter.