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Bradenton circus family aims to be 'awesome' at state fair

Somewhere past the midway games among dozens of trailers, two camels rest while a bejeweled circus performer cleans up their droppings.

Unconcerned with smudging her bright red lipstick, Lletsira Coronas bites off the end of a carrot, spits it out and feeds the rest to the animals.

A few corn dog and funnel cake booths away, a giraffe named Twiggs stretches his gray tongue as far it can go. He aims for a treat in a little girl's hand. Gawking kids stand nearby and squeal with delight.

"It's a giraffe at the fair," onlooker Mark Staib said. "That's pretty awesome."

"Awesome" is the reaction the Coronas family of Bradenton seeks year after year when it brings a circus and a zoo to the Florida State Fair, which runs through Monday.

The family's Circus Hollywood and Giraffic Menagerie features more than 100 animals ranging from camels to kangaroos. Some of the animals perform tricks. Others, like 12-year-old Twiggs, spend their days interacting with fairgoers from behind red metal bars.

Animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals call it a horror story. Husband and wife Serge and Stevie Coronas call it life.

The Coronas' grandparents were in the business. Now their adult children, Serge Jr., Nicole and Crystal, help run Circus Hollywood.

They handle Agriculture Department citations for things such as damaged animal enclosures by "correcting the problem," Stevie Coronas said. Records show no reports of abuse.

"These are beautiful animals, and they are well cared for," Coronas said. "We have nothing to hide."

Most of the animals were born in captivity, purchased from other circuses or brokers. Serge Coronas says they are domesticated, that if released into the wild to graze and mate, they would die.

Behind the big top, horses and camels get kisses from trainers. The hay beds are clean. The llamas hum.

"Our animals are like our family," Serge Coronas Jr. said. "People think we chain them up in a pen and leave them there, but it's not like that. We spend as much time with them as we do our own children."

The family owns 20 acres in Bradenton. It is their home three to four months of the year. There, the animals roam a fenced 10-acre field and receive training.

Stevie and Lletsira Coronas shape the menagerie into performers using positive reinforcement. They reward animals with treats when they execute commands. Camels, for example, learn to stand on pedestals by repeating a performance again and again. Perfecting a routine can take a few months to a year, depending on the temperament of the species.

Camels take the longest because they are stubborn said Lletsira, who is married to Serge Jr.

The Coronas spend about eight months a year traveling around the country to fairs and headlining the Shrine Circus for Shriners Hospitals for Children. The animals, like the humans, sleep and ride in semitrailers.

• • •

Come showtime at the state fair, Lletsira's animal act follows her, heads held high, into the ring. Music blasts, and lights flash. The crowd cheers.

Lletsira motions with a whip for her camels, llamas and horses to take their places. They change positions and perform on the pedestals. The whip barely touches the animals, but its cracking sound serves as a signal.

Tools used in training and performing serve as an extension of the arm. They are not used for punishment, Lletsira said.

In the crowd, Sarasota resident Jerome Hawkins hoped that was the case.

"There's a stereotype that the animals aren't treated properly," he said. "I wish I could know for sure they are well taken care of."

Serge Coronas scoffs at the mention of animal cruelty and his circus.

"Our horses cost $50,000 apiece and our giraffes are $70,000," he said, nuzzling a camel. "These animals are how we make our living. Why would we abuse them?"

Visitors at the Giraffic Menagerie said they saw no signs of disease or malnourishment. No stench of waste.

"They don't look unhappy," Staib said, snapping a picture of Twiggs, the carrot-eating giraffe.

Twiggs gobbles up veggies like a dog devouring a milk bone. He lets admirers pet him and licks the occasional hand. He is, after all, a Coronas and this is what he was trained to do.

Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or swhitman@sptimes.com.

Bradenton circus family aims to be 'awesome' at state fair 02/19/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 20, 2011 11:08am]
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