OK, so now the troublesome side.
Do you remember the last time you saw a news report about a zookeeper getting mauled? ... Probably not. It's a great story for local news, what with it being about scary animals. But it doesn't happen often. Zookeepers have a rather good safety record, because they take their jobs seriously. They pay attention. They take care.
So why has Mark Rosenthal gotten injured so often, and nearly killed multiple times?
Maybe it's just chance. He does, according to himself and according to news reports about his Animal Magic organization, a lot of work with extremely needy animals. Many of them are rescues from Michigan- and Ohio-area idiots keeping exotic pets they aren't competent to handle. He gets little control over what animals he might have to deal with, and the physical and emotional circumstances they're in. By his claim, he's often called in by police who are arresting richer-than-they-are-bright criminals with exotic animals kept in unknowable conditions. This seems naturally the highest-risk kind of animal care taking. And he was, after all, putting on a show. He may well be exaggerating minor scrapes to make himself sound the more awesome. He might be making it up altogether.
And then there was his playing with Popcorn the binturong on stage. He was tossing it back and letting it grab at him, the way you might roughhouse with a kitten. The thing is, if a kitten doesn't realize how much roughhousing play you can take, you get a bite and have to wear a bandage. A binturong may be three feet, nose to tail, and weigh sixty pounds. That's a lot of claw and tooth to get at you if it misjudges what the playing level is like. It's thrilling to have an animal jump on your back. An animal that is, roughly, an ocelot with a raccoon's diet?
Maybe he is confident he knows the animal's temperament extremely well. That strikes me as the sort of confidence one has before an animal-care-related tragedy.
But then ... take that great story about the binturong swiping his Taco Bell burrito. He explained how, while Popcorn was in the front seat, she was also still in her cage. That's just responsible: if there's an auto accident and the car doors spring open, you don't want exotic animals wandering out into traffic. OK. Then how did she grab the burrito?
Explainable? Sure. Maybe the cage door has wires spaced enough she can reach her arm out and yoink a burrito in. Maybe he lets the door open when he's at low-speed, very-safe things like the drive-through window of a fast food place, so he can pet the animal during a dull stretch. Maybe he was parked and opened the door for that.
Why did he have a rabbit, with desperate need of claw-trimming, to give away to anyone at the convention who was willing to take it?
Well, he said his daughter had it as the dorm rabbit, and he'd just gotten it because the dorm had noticed and evicted the illicit pet. Perhaps he meant he had literally just gotten it, like, a day or two before, and didn't have the time to inspect and care for the rabbit. (And yes, his daughter ought to know to check the animal's claws aren't too long. But he isn't his daughter; and his daughter might have figured she was better at taking care of animals than she really was. College age is a natural time to be stupid. I don't find anything particularly mysterious about that.) Perhaps he was screening out bozos well. He's been taking care of exotic animals and presumably finding spots for them for a long while; surely he's at least as capable as a local chapter of the Humane Society? We never asked directly about taking home that rabbit. We don't really know what his standards were.
And, as I say, he seems to do a lot of work with state and local authorities. He claims to be the guy anyone near Detroit calls when there's an exotic animal to be dealt with. Alligators especially, he claims. (He says drug dealers want alligators as awesome pets to have, and then when the dealers get arrested, or when the alligators get out of control, he gets called in to clean up that part of the mess.) News clippings seem to bear it out. And he does have, he reports, something like six thousand animals under his care.
But ... here's the thing. Six thousand is a lot of animals. The Detroit Zoo has (according to Wikipedia) about 3,300 animals, and they have two hundred employees and over a thousand volunteers helping them out. Perhaps he's boasting, or relying on showman-grade mathematics. Counting every animal he's ever cared for, for example, over the course of decades in taking in and, presumably, relocating animals somewhere, and going for the big and impressive claim. Perhaps he has things like a colony of bugs where there may be several hundred roaches or whatever, an impressive number but not nearly so time-consuming as, say, several hundred fennecs would be. Their gloriously Web 1.0 site claims they have over four thousand tarantulas, for example, which if true would seem to make the staffing problem less awful.
It still seems like an incredible workload, though, and that before you consider how much time is spent on rescuing animals in need. Or the time spent on the animal performance shows that presumably do so much to keep the whole project going.
But, like he says, he puts the animals first. He talked about how he's had to get up every two hours in order to take care of some infant ... I forget which. That's a temporary matter, of course, while these cubs are most in need, but he'll put himself to that effort.
He was scheduled for two hours of presentation at the hotel for two hours on Saturday. He was local, certainly, but not actually at the hotel. Sunday his show was to be just an hour. I don't know if he was to stay for the Charity Auction, ninety minutes starting an hour after the end of that show.
But there's a lot of Barnum in his stage persona. Maybe that's not right to hold against him. It's absurd to fault someone who's putting on a show for being too entertaining. If his self-promotion is hard to credit, well, what of that? It's about making the audience feel like they're in on something cool, not about wondering how Animal Magic Inc can do performances in Connecticut and South Carolina and New York, but not manage Late Night. It's all hype, and it's for someone doing good work. And hype that's fully credible is not hype.
And he does seem to be doing good work for organizations that need this work done. But then ...
A thread in Reptileforms.co.uk from 2010 mentions him as a seller in tarantulas. With four thousand of them in stock I suppose there must be some need to do something with the surplus population. Perhaps he is doing this after reasonable screening to be sure that the buyer is able, knowledgeable, and willing to do well by the animals.
A couple of bat bloggers (and I don't know if they're independent sources or if they're copying one another) cite him for putting giant straw colored fruit bats up for sale. Again perhaps this is done with due care. Perhaps he looks only for responsible zoos or other credible caretaking organizations. I don't see that in the listings he seems to have up.
Here, for example, is a 2012 listing for a baby Giant African Crested Porcupine. Past transgressions he's repented for, the way he owned up to importing hedgehogs in the 80s and told the audience at his show that it was a horrible, horrible mistake? Here's a September 2015 listing of a pair of Dwarf Hairy Armadillos. He was asking for five thousand for the pair.
I do not know of any evidence that he is involved with anything illegal. Is there anything wrong, though? ... I don't know. But I believe there is at least a prima facie case that Animal Magic is involved in the exotic-animals trade in ways that are unsettling.
I point out again, I don't know. Animal Magic is, apparently, reputable and competent enough to a good number of local police and animal-care authorities. Animal Magic's web site points out its federal and state licenses, and membership in groups with respectable-sounding names such as American Association of Zoo Keepers, the Association of Professional Wildlife Educators, and the Zoological Association of America. Also the Michigan Festival and Events Association. I am not informed enough to know what these groups are like. I'm ignorant enough that all I know is Association of Zoos and Aquariums accreditation seems respectable. The Animal Magic site doesn't mention AZA accreditation.
I feel like there is a shortage of needed contextual information. Well, I can give an example: how many animals, of how many species, is Animal Magic taking care of at any moment? How large is their staff? Rosenthal boasted of six thousand animals but that was about it. I don't remember anything about staff. The web site shows a couple of pictures of various animals: a binturong, a kinkajou, a ruffed lemur, porcupines, fennec foxes, a constrictor named Julius Squeezer. And the Motor City Furry Con charity was to raise money for a new sloth enclosure. They had a baby, you know, just last June, that they named Flash after the Zootopia character. (And when was that name applied?) I know how hard it is to keep a web site like this up to date, especially with animals coming and going all the time. But ... who all do they have? And maybe things are more obvious on their Facebook page (I haven't got an account) or other easily-updated social media stuff.
None of this occurred to me while I was watching the show. This is why I went in and gave my twenty dollars for a ridiculous picture standing near a sloth. bunny_hugger was reluctant. I wasn't listening to her reservations, not as well as I should have. Away from the stage, with time to think it over, my natural cynicism and doubts about people could regain its footing and I could come to regret the photograph. I don't know what to do with it except hold it as a reminder to think better.
And again maybe I am the one in the wrong here. As I say, I don't see evidence of his doing anything specifically wrong. Doing a web search for ``mark rosenthal controversy'' turns up very little. Perhaps I've just rebounded from his very good performance to an undue skepticism. So some guy with a blogspot about bat care feels slighted; is that actually journalism? Does that tell us anything with enough context that it can be true?
Still. Furry conventions, at least the ones I go to, often end up having the same charity back every year. This is for good, understandable reasons. I'm worried that Animal Magic is going to be a lock-in for the convention for the indefinite future. It's easy to see why. He puts on a great show. And the show seems to have an obvious direct interest to furry folk. And maybe that's fine; I'm just not confident, myself.
So, on to maybe meaningless coincidences. That eight thousand dollars Motor City Furry Con raised for the new sloth enclosure? The as-of-this-writing listings on exoticanimalsforsale.net for sloths put that as the high end of what you could get for a baby two-toed sloth. That's about the asking price for a binturong, too.
Trivia: The 1845 New York Knickerbockers baseball rules codified pitching to be underhand. This distinguished it from New England baseball rules, which called for overhand pitching, the way it's done today. Source: Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search For The History of the Game, David Block.
Currently Reading: Ain't That A Knee-Slapper: Rural Comedy in the 20th Century, Tom Hollis.