Florida became a battleground for Virginians Dec. 16 when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — based in Norfolk, Va. — used the Sheraton Orlando Downtown as the scene of its press conference denouncing Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Center for Elephant Conservation. That Polk City facility is ultimately run by the circus' parent company, Vienna, Va.-based Feld Entertainment.

For a half-dozen reporters, PETA director of Captive Animals & Entertainment Issues Debbie Leahy showed enlarged pictures of baby elephants contorted with ropes, prodded with sharpened sticks called bullhooks, and — so it's claimed — hit with an electric prod called a "hot shot" by head trainer Gary Jacobson.

The pictures and a 15-page detailed statement came from Sam Haddock, who worked at the Polk City center intermittently from 1997 until 2005. He took the pictures in 2001 or 2002, but said methods were the same in 2005, and there's no reason to think they've changed now, says Leahy.

Haddock died in November. His statement says it was his wife, Millie — who died in 2008 — who convinced him to speak out.

Leahy says PETA wants the company's animal exhibition license revoked, and wants parents to stop buying circus tickets. PETA has also filed a complaint with the USDA, and is hoping for criminal charges, she says.

Haddock claimed that baby elephants, still nursing, were taken from their mothers and chained up for weeks at a time, then undergoing a year of training based on brute force and the infliction of pain.

Janice Aria, director of Animal Stewardship at the elephant center, wonders why Haddock never said anything to her or others who worked there, if he was so disturbed by how the animals were treated.

"Any of us that work here have long friendships with these elephants," she says.

Throughout Haddock's long illness, all he told former coworkers was that he missed being with the elephants, and even invited Jacobson over 10 months ago to give him a gift, according to Aria.

"We're all really perplexed as to what in the heck was going on here," she says.

The circus is not backing down: it's scheduled for seven shows in Amway Arena, including performing elephants, Jan. 14-17.

However hard it may be to accept that the air we were all breathing before the real estate market crashed was in fact fake oxygen piped in from a giant banker's bubble factory, it was. It was all a lie. Those cute lifestyle boutiques and chocolate fountains and mixed-use metropolitan menageries that seemed to occupy every diversion of our wandering eyes should probably have clued us in (OK, some of us were in on the joke), but instead we kept blowing until everything popped. Now, at least according to the fine folks at Forbes, who if we remember correctly were part of the spend-too-much problem, Orlando is having a really hard time getting over itself. We're No. 1 on the business mag's list of cities with the most overpriced properties!

By way of a broad view, we're not the only ones suffering from million-dollar listing syndrome. Forbes found that nationally only 42 percent of homeowners suspected that their own four-walled tributes to social accomplishment had decreased in value over the past year. The reality is that 72 percent of houses did, meaning that those who figured their real estate was their nest egg are in for a rude awakening. Also, those who are "underwater" — or owe more on their homes than they're worth — aren't really capable of managing their expectations when it comes to a house's sell price. They need the money to pay off that subprime loan.

Orlando — the city that loves foreclosure like you love your mother — came into the prime spot on the Forbes list for showing a 43 percent mark-up on home prices; the median price for a house in the City Beautiful is a paltry $202,381. Try telling that to the Prada lady with the Chihuahua who thought she had everything figured out. We're the bargain basement now, Muffy.

"The demand in Orlando is really only for the least expensive properties," Mike Simonsen, chief executive officer of Altos Research told Forbes. "The market as a whole is overpriced, in that people are not buying on the high end, they're buying entry-level."

Sounds about right.

Speaking of managed expect-ations, those of us who were draping our homes in rainbow flags last year at about this time at the thought of the disappearance of that pesky pink ceiling with the advent of a new presidential administration — not to mention a super-majority of Democrats in congress — may have been disappointed by the gay realities slammed in our faces in 2009. Turns out everybody still hates the gays. That's OK. We're used to disappointment (and drama!).

Our friends at Equality Florida are choosing to look at the bright side, because that's how an organization elicits donations. Their year-end newsletter slapped its way into our inbox this week, and with it came the header "Amazing Victories in 2009." What were they? Equality Florida helped to pass 15 new domestic partnership, anti-discrimination and safe schools policies throughout the Sunshine State, which was enough to make somebody type, "We are winning." Also, EQFL silenced a right-wing attempt to rip the gays out of a Gainesville human rights ordinance, helped elect 75 percent of the candidates they endorsed, worked with Florida's United States representatives to get the votes needed on the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act and threw the gauntlet down at haters like reggae homophobe Buju Banton and the programming folks over at Tampa's NBC affiliate who sold airtime to a Jesus group with an anti-gay infomercial. All because of you. (Please send money).

Their agenda for the coming year takes on workplace discrimination, the gay adoption ban and the coming midterm elections in which we'll replace the governor, attorney general and members of the senate and house. Let's paint the mutha pink!

Speaking of pink — well more of a politely masculine light red — we were pleased as one of Tim Gunn's furrowed brow wrinkles at a Christian Siriano tranny-hot-mess tulle this week when the newer, dumber Lifetime Network iteration of Project Runway announced its season seven lineup of unbearable designers preparing to be auf'd. Why? Because one of them is from Orlando!

Jesse LeNoir, a 25-year-old who originally hails from Painesville, OH, made the cut and there are videos of him all over the Lifetime website doing things like hanging out and saying he's not gay.

"I'm smart, young, self-taught, straight," he gushes in his audition clip just before another man yanks him back into his bed-bound dream sequence.

Also of note, the first garment LeNoir ever made was "pants of see-through cotton doubled in specific areas in the shape of flames to create a pattern." Fire crotch. Hooray!

We could go into so much more detail — like Jesse's "closet tour," the fact that he "tends to wear a lot of graphic T-shirts," has an appreciation for argyle, built his own bed and is crafting his fiancé's wedding dress, but we'll leave that to your twiddling fingers at www.mylifetime.com. There you'll see a panel of Project Runway brass (including Tim Gunn) tell him that his work sucks almost completely, but for a detachable waistcoat, meaning he's disposable but cute. Like pants, apparently.

"Obviously," says LeNoir prancing about his living space in glorified jean shorts, "I can't stop cutting off my pants!"

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