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A sideshow swan song

Animal rights activists smell a rat in Coney Island.

A capybara, the world’s largest rodent, is the victim of a daily assault of noise, cramped conditions and inhumane treatment —and spectators can witness it all for less than the price of a cup of coffee, activists said.

“It’s pretty tragic,” said Desiree Acholla, animals in entertainment specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has so far received dozens of complaints about this and other Coney Island animal oddity exhibits.

In the wild, capybaras are social animals who live along river banks in South America. They are herbivores and can grow to well over 100 pounds. They are more closely related to chinchillas than true rats.

“Like our own dogs and cats, they are highly social, vocal animals,” Acholla said, adding that in the wild, they roam for dozens of miles each day. It is “inherently cruel” to confine the animal to a cage.

“The most important thing for people to recognize is that they are paying to watch an animal suffer — it’s what keeps him in business,” she continued. “This is an environment that fosters indifference.”

But the way Lee Kolozsy sees it, the animal is living high on the hog. Kolozsy, who performs under the name “Professor Laszlo,” is a circus operator and consultant whose family owns the “rat” exhibit and other sideshow exhibits, which were developed for his Florida-based circus.

In their native South America, he said, the capybara is “considered food.” Under his care, he said, the animals live long, healthy lives, some up to 20 years. Plus, he said, its cage is twice the required size. “It’s like a two-room apartment,” he observed.

The animal wasn’t bothered in the slightest by the sound system that obnoxiously loops phrases like “Locked in a steel cage for your protection! The rat! The rat!” to draw attention to the sideshow, he claimed. Capybaras, which spend much of their time in the water, he offered, can “close up their ears and nostrils for hours at a time,” he said. “If it’s too loud, they just plug their ears,” he said.

Robert Voss, the curator of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, was skeptical. “It’s not plausible that the capybara hears nothing of the ambient noise in its environment,” he said. “Whether it minds it or not is another question.”

Shown a photograph this paper took of the animal, Voss confirmed the species, calling it a “not-very-happy-looking capybara.”

“It doesn’t take an expert in animal behavior to see that a social, semi-aquatic animal kept by itself in a cramped metal cage with blaring rock music in the background is going to get stressed out under such conditions,” he said.

Kolozsy, who said he teaches the arts and sciences of the circus, said he receives “routine harassment” from animal rights groups wherever his show goes, but any criticism is unwarranted. “This is one of the most popular attractions in Coney island. There is no abuse.”

He said he was recently inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal Health Monitoring and Surveillance (APHIS) agency, and was found to be in full compliance. While the animals are not permitted under New York state law, they are in Florida, and New York honors those permits, he noted.

Anita Kelso Edson, senior director of media and communications for the ASPCA confirmed a recent visit to the sideshow, in response to a complaint.“Our agents did not observe any cruelty and the case was closed,” she said.

APHIS spokesperson Dave Sacks said the sideshow’s last surprise inspection was June 17. “He was in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act,” Sacks said.

The sideshow rotates the capybaras in the exhibit, returning them to their brood at a Florida zoo every three weeks or so, he said. The exhibit is simply educational, interesting, and entertaining, Kolozsy added. “It may look like a carnie sideshow, but actually, this is a very sophisticated thing,” he said.

When this paper paid 50 cents to view the exhibit, the capybara stood motionless in the corner of the cage. One spectator who requested anonymity was not entertained. “It is animal abuse,” the person said. “This exhibit is louder than all the others.”

Booth ticket man Charles Compton said the “only abuse” [the animal is subjected to] is when people tap on the cage,” he explained. “That’s why she’s in the corner,” he said of the capybara, named Petuny.

On a hot Saturday night in Coney Island last week, one young spectator was hardly impressed. “That’s not a rat. That just looks like a guinea pig,” the girl said, disappearing into a thick crowd.

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