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Popular Ohio State Fair show with sea lions a PETA target

By ALEXANDRA MESTER • Aug 3, 2016 at 10:00 PM

COLUMBUS — One of the attractions at the Ohio State Fair this year has drawn both sizable crowds and the ire of an animal advocacy group.

Sea Lion Splash, a Florida-based traveling show featuring performing sea lions, is the target of a campaign by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Three sea lions are performing three shows per day at the fair, which continues through Sunday in Columbus.

PETA alleges the animals are mistreated, citing a May inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that resulted in one direct and six indirect violations. The group is asking the fair to cancel the show.

"It's a cruel and reckless traveling display," said Debbie Metzler, a captive wildlife specialist with PETA.

The USDA inspection of five sea lions at one of their performance locations showed three of the animals exhibiting signs of painful eye conditions attributed to water quality. One sea lion had a cloudy eye, two others were consistently squinting or holding an eye shut.

Indirect violations included a metal bar leeching rust into a pool, keeping the animals for too long in a smaller pool, improper water testing and treatment, lack of access to saltwater as previously prescribed by a veterinarian, lack of required documentation of veterinary examinations, and inadequate training for employees.

A follow-up inspection in June showed no violations.

PETA also says a former employee contacted the group saying the animals were routinely abused with poles and pipes during training sessions, and six sea lions were once kept together during transit in a small pool without food or water changes for three days. Ms. Metzler could not provide documentation of the allegations.

"Watching suffering and abused sea lions perform tricks and pose for photos is cruelty and exploitation," she said. "Sea lions are complex wild animals. They are denied everything that is natural and important to them as they are trucked across the country."

Sea Lion Splash has two traveling units. The one performing in Columbus with three animals did not receive the violations, unit manager Jimmy Earhart said. He said the show encounters PETA's efforts regularly.

"Everywhere we go, whatever event we're doing, they'll have their volunteers bombard [officials'] email accounts," Mr. Earhart said.

He said the show's animals were rescued from the wild and captive-breeding facilities and are well cared for. He said PETA intentionally misconstrues facts.

"I'd put my record up against PETA's any day," he said. "They're not about animal welfare, truthfully, the way they claim to be."

The animals are seen at least twice yearly by a veterinarian, he said. Ill or injured animals do not perform, and a veterinarian will be called in if necessary. Employees are also happy to address visitors' concerns and will give tours of the animals' facilities, he said.

"I'll bring them backstage and show them what we do for them," Mr. Earhart said.

The sea lions' travel and overnight quarters are an air-conditioned semi trailer with a pool and dry deck. At each stop, large pools are erected to either side of the stage where the animals spend their daytime hours. An awning provides shade.

Alicia Shoults, spokesman for the fair, said officials contracted Sea Lion Splash for $30,000.

"We always look for educational attractions," she said. "Throughout the show, they talk about conservation efforts and how different things people do, like littering and polluting, can be harmful to those animals."

Upon receiving a message from PETA on July 25, officials reviewed the information and contacted Sea Lion Splash staff to address the group's concerns. Dr. Bob Carey, a veterinarian with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, inspected the animals upon their arrival at the fairgrounds the following day and found no issues.

"There have been no problems, no concerns whatsoever," Ms. Shoults said. "We're keeping a close eye on them as well as all the other visitors to the Ohio State Fair."

The fair also featured Sea Lion Splash in 2013, and the shows then and now have been well received and well attended, she said. Fair leaders said they have not heard any complaints from fair-goers.

Ms. Metzler said more than 46,000 people have signed an online petition and sent a scripted email to state fair officials regarding Sea Lion Splash since an action alert was created at peta.org early last week.

Contact Alexandra Mester: [email protected], 419-724-6066, or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.

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