ROCKLAND — Those anticipating a family circus in Rockland – that is not Lobster Festival related – will have to travel a little further this summer.
Tuesday, July 16, in a 3 - 2 vote, Rockland City Council denied a permit that would have allowed Zerbini Family Circus to transform Snow Marine Park into a Big Top attraction. The permit was the actual license necessary to hold a circus within city limits.
With circus ancestry dating back to Europe a century ago, the Zerbinis have been entertaining U.S. audiences since 1968 as employees of other entertainers, according to Variety Attraction.
In 1992, they started their own circus, which is now overseen by Alain Zerbini, a performer of aerial acts, balancing acts and animal acts.
Mayor Lisa Westkaemper and City Councilor Ed Glaser approved the permit; however, Councilors Valli Geiger, Amelia Magjik, and Benjamin Dorr contested the motion.
In a Facebook post response, July 17, the Circus stated that Rockland initially approved the show on January 16. But, on July 9, the Circus was notified by Harbor Master Matt Ripley, speaking for the Harbor Management Commission, which approved the initial application. Ripley made the Circus aware of an additional permit and $500 fee previously unknown by himself and City Manager Tom Luttrell.
Luttrell stated during the meeting that the permit requirement had slipped by due to a glitch in the system. He told the Council that the system has been fixed and will not be a problem in the future.
In the same notification by Ripley, the Circus was informed that Luttrell was working to have a special city government meeting scheduled for the following week in order to vote on the additional permit.
According to the Circus, complications arose when animal rights activists approached Rockland Council with articles found on the internet accusing another circus of abuse to wild animals. The Alain Zerbini Family Circus denies ever owning wild animals.
The Circus allegedly was not notified of the last-minute special council meeting, July 16, which only consisted of three agenda items: the circus permit; Order #50 Reserve Fund Expenditure – Summer St. Sewer; and
Presentation/Discussion: Lot Sizes and Setbacks.
“We are guilty by association,” said the Zerbini Facebook post. “We had nobody to represent us during this meeting, no way of defending ourselves.”
They also said they weren’t notified of the cancellation until the next day, when they were asked via social media if the cancellation announcement was true.
However, Luttrell stated in a follow-up email to the Pen Bay Pilot that at least two city officials notified the Circus of the date and time of the meeting. Willy Waltens, representative for Zerbini, was then notified about the vote the morning after the meeting.
During the meeting, Luttrell vouched for the good track record of the Zerbini Circus.
The two “animal rights activist groups” were, in fact, two Rockland residents who took to the podium during the Council meeting. Neither directed accusations against any specific circus, but the general mistreatment of animals used for the purpose of entertainment.
Resident Calli Black only mentioned the Zerbini Family Circus in a statement that they, too, use animals in their acts.
“Most animals don’t want to jump through a flaming hoop, and have to be seriously convinced to do it,” she said. “Think about what coming to Maine in this weather must be like in a trailer or a truck. It’s 84 degrees today. That truck probably doesn’t have air conditioning. It was probably a really hellish ride.
“I would hope that we don’t encourage that kind of thing in Rockland,” she said. “It bothers me a lot that they are going to be using our public land, and the care of these animals is definitely in question.”
Black told council that she wanted council to deny the permit, despite the late timing. If they did approve, then she suggested that they require the city animal control officer or a veterinarian examine the animals for injury and disease, and make sure that they are properly confined.
Kendall Merriam echoed the same sentiments toward poor training and caring of animals by circuses, but added zoos and aquariums to the list, except in situations designed to protect the creatures.
“It is possible to have a good circus without animals,” he said. “For instance, the Blue Man Group, the Big Apple Circus...the only danger is to humans, not animals.”
This summer, Alain Zerbini and his circus are scheduled to appear in 15 other Maine locations during July and August.
Rockland would have hosted the shows next week, Wednesday and Thursday, July 24 and 25. Yet, with the residents’ reminder of animal mistreatment by circuses, Council member Valli Geiger could not approve the license.
Geiger and Councilor Amelia Magjik both admitted feeling caught off guard by Black’s last-minute plea to vote no. Magjik stated a new struggle in how to vote, since Glaser and Luttrell stated good reports for the organization, yet “there’s always going to be bad reports on the other side of every coin,” said Magjik. “So I feel a little not prepared to make a judgment call like this.”
“On principle, I will vote no,” she said.
Geiger spoke of watching a parade in Sri Lanka when she was 24. She watched 100 elephants parade through during a 5-day event, and was told by villagers that on the last day, the elephants cry because it will be another year before they see one another again. I swear, there were tear drops down every elephant I saw that day.
“I would have voted this without even thinking about it,” she said. “And now I find that I can’t.”
Councilor Ed Glaser voted for the license, having done online research into the company.
“This particular circus has remarkably a pretty good record over the years,” he said. “They are overlooked by the USDA, and as far as I can see, they have absolutely no violations or history of violations. They are performing throughout New England....I think if you are going to have a circus, this is probably one of the better circuses.”
Council Dorr did not comment during the meeting.
In the vote’s aftermath, Thomaston’s mayor has reached out to the Circus and offered them a venue in Thomaston, according to the Zerbini Family Circus after granting permission to the Pilot to publish the Circus Facebook posting.