Last week, while vendors set up for the annual San Genarro Feast in Little Italy, three scrappy cubs — two lions and a tiger – paced figure eights in small storage unit-sized cages. They were the bewildered stars of a petting zoo reportedly brought to the event by John “Cha Cha” Ciarcia, a local restaurant owner and character actor known affectionately as “The Mayor of Little Italy.” My initial shock at seeing two species that are creeping toward the endangered list chase their tails in the middle of Mulberry Street gave way to a sense of amazement at organizers who would set up a captive wild animal concession in one of the most media-saturated zones on earth. Did these folks not know they were nestled in a liberal mecca affectionately known as “NoLiTa,” and that– pro-fur fashionistas aside — the ethical treatment of animals is as basic to the make-up of the average hipster as a neck tattoo? Evidently, the mayors of Mulberry Street were too caught up in the gabagool spirit of the feast — and intent on capitalizing on any lingering Sopranos/cresting Jersey Shore hype attached to the old neighborhood — to notice they were surrounded by soy-loving jamooks.

Like a wild cat petting zoo, Little Italy is today an ersatz remnant of a once brutal landscape that evolved according to basic survival imperatives — to eat, procreate, colonize, and live another day. At one time Sicilian thugs ran the Lower East Side just as lions ruled the African plains. But now that both species had been de-clawed and commodified, one had arranged to exploit the other for fun and profit. The cubs would be poked and harassed by wandering throngs for two weeks, leading to stress on the animals and potential injury to people. When an animal lashes out at a human being, regardless of the circumstances, the animal pays the price. The way feast pilgrims ogled and fawned over the cubs indicated that–even in plugged-in, hyper-informed Manhattan–ignorance about the dismal facts of these animals lives was commonplace. I decided to return to Little Italy’s petting zoo and cast a lens on the casual cruelty with which the animals were being wrangled.

When I returned to Mulberry Street the following day with a video camera, I found a team of Health Department officials with clipboards citing the vendors for lacking necessary permits. The concession was being shut down and the cubs were being packed in the back of a truck bound for Florida. Less than 24 hours after landing on Mulberry Street, the animals were being shipped South, possibly to another sideshow.

PETA is inquiring into Lions, Tigers & Bears Wild Animal Sanctuary, the Homestead, Florida-based operation that carts the animals around the country under the guise of raising funds for rescued wildlife. Animals have a way of being made to pay for human ignorance and given that these seemed to be legally owned (a “Registered with the USDA” sign was prominently displayed above the cages where the cubs were kept), it’s not clear how much legal action can be taken to protect them from abuse. One can only hope to track these cubs — and thousands of others like them around the world — as they make their way through the grim channels that currently exist for captive wild animals.

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