Peter Carroll has used more animal acts than Ringling Brothers during the past 18 years to hype his Washington boat and outdoor shows. He has hired men to wrestle alligators and bears to wrestle men. He has featured ducks playing "Dixie" on musical instruments, dogs retrieving live birds, and donkeys, snakes and fish.
But Carroll has never had a show stopper like Killer Willard, the boxing kangaroo. Friday at 6:30 p.m., just minutes before Australia's marsupial master was scheduled to put on his gloves for a performance at the D.C. Armory, District police arrested his owner, Irene Fossett, put her in a cruiser and took her to jail.
"It was absurd," said Carroll, a round and usually jolly type, who was pressed into the unpleasant chore of explaining to customers at the RV/Boat/Outdoors show last weekend that Killer Willard had suffered a first-round TKO.
The arrest came after three days of legal sparring between Fossett, Carroll and a court that included the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Spearheading the cause was Ingrid Newkirk, the acting chief of the District's Animal Disease Control Division and one of this area's animal rights activists.
Newkirk recommended that the District's Department of Licenses, Investigations and Inspections deny a permit for Willard to perform, arguing that to grant one would be "tantamount to condoning animal cruelty."
If you ever saw Willard at work, you would wonder what dictionary was consulted to come up with a definition of cruelty. During his four years in show biz, the giant red kangaroo, weighing 125 pounds and standing more than 6 feet tall on his hind legs, has never been hit by anything harder than a love tap.
"If you hurt a kangaroo, he'll never box again," said Tony Fossett, Irene's husband and Willard's boxing patsy. At every performance, when one of Fossett's two daughters calls for a volunteer from the audience to box Willard, Tony is the first to step forward.
The show is a carefully orchestrated farce that is part vaudeville, burlesque and the Three Stooges. Tony, with his pants legs rolled up, is chased, slapped and punted out of the ring for two rounds. At that point, his wife, also planted in the crowd, runs up to rescue her man. After she falls into the ring, Willard rips off her skirt and dumps her into an oversized trash can.
The humor of the act may be debatable, but not the cruelty quotient. The Gossetts take all the beating and Willard gets all the applause.
"They were trying to get us," said Tony Fossett, whose family has been staging kangaroo boxing acts in England for 30 years.
With Willard out of action, The Great Sebastian gritted his metal teeth and kept the show from closing.
Sebastian is a middle-aged man who has spent the last 13 years making a living by catching bullets in his teeth. The teeth are false, made of special carbide steel. But the bullets are real. The .22 caliber Remington shorts are fired at Sebastian at 15 yards by a marksman using a rifle. Here is an act that is undeniably a danger to life and limb.
"Twenty-one people have lost their lives due to the bullet catch," said Eduardo Sebastian Adriano to an Armory crowd that seemed initially skeptical. "People have been performing this feat since the 1800s."
While everyone else connected with the boat show this weekend was upset about Willard's fate, Sebastian was professionally calm. He has performed his act, which he bills as the "most intriguing and controversial feat in the world" from Circus Circus in Las Vegas to a Ramada Inn in Tampa. When it was show time, he grabbed the spotlight and caught another bullet in his teeth.
Willard spent the weekend in the back of a large van he shares with another kangaroo named Lucky and a few chimpanzees. When Tony Fossett came to visit, the two tussled like a kid and an overgrown dog. When a photographer came by, they obligingly kissed for the cameras.
"I'm really ticked off about this," said Carroll, as he walked past a large tank stocked with trout that customers were trying to catch. "I'm surprised they're not complaining about the trout."