Coney Island freak show owner vows to fight for ownership of five-legged puppy
We wish we could report that there had been a completely happy ending when a good Samaritan rescued a five-legged puppy from life in a Coney Island freak show. But the Charlotte Observer reported Wednesday that the freak show's owner, John Strong, plans to file a lawsuit to reclaim the animal.
The puppy at the center of the dispute is a tiny tan Chihuahua mix whose fewer than two months on earth have already been a whirlwind. She was born in the small North Carolina town of Gastonia with an extra appendage: a fifth leg, white, malformed and rubbery. Calvin Owensby, who owned her parents and named her Precious, told reporters that his veterinarian had recommended euthanazing the deformed puppy. He refused.
Instead, he announced plans to have the fifth leg amputated in an effort to make movement easier for Precious. Owensby, an unemployed electrician, was unable to pay for the procedure himself, but an anonymous donor had offered to cover the expense. Things were looking up for Precious, until a local newspaper reported that Owensby had changed his mind and decided to sell her to the freak show for $3,000.
Many animal lovers who learned of the story were outraged; one, Charlotte resident Allyson Siegel, gave Owensby a counter-offer of $3,000 plus an additional $1,000 to repay a deposit Strong had paid for Precious. Owensby agreed, and Siegel took the puppy, whom she renamed Lilly. "As a kid, I'd been to a fair, and I'd been to all these sideshows, and I just didn't think it was right for her," Siegel told the Gaston Gazette of her decision to buy Lilly.
Although Siegel said she was more of a cat person than a dog person and wasn't certain she'd keep Lilly herself, the puppy seemed to be in good hands. Should she decide to give her up, it would be to a good adoptive home found through the Animal League of Gaston County, she said. Plans were underway to have Lilly's extra leg amputated next week. But Strong told the Charlotte Observer he'll seek an injunction to keep the surgery from happening until the puppy's ownership is decided.
"It's like a guy who sells you a car and then later tells you he's going to sell it to someone else,” Strong said in an interview with the Observer. "I was the original owner -- it doesn't matter if it's a five-legged dog, a house or a car." (Ah, yes, the true mark of one who cares about the well-being of animals: comparing one to an inanimate object.)
For his part, Owensby expressed confusion about Strong's actions and insisted that they had never had a formal contract and that his deposit for the puppy had already been refunded. Siegel vowed to fight to keep Lilly.
Strong is a veteran of the sideshow-and-circus industry, even playing a sword swallower in the 1992 movie "Batman Returns." In a 2006 interview with a website called Sideshow World, he recalled growing up around his grandfather, a juggler, and his father, who eventually opened his own traveling circus. Strong once worked as a lion tamer and, by his own account, developed an interest in deformed animals early in life. His freak show features dead, bottled and stuffed animal oddities in addition to live ones, but, he told Sideshow World, "there’s nothing like having a live 2-headed animal that is functional and good-looking."
The negative comments he's read about himself online since word spread of the five-legged puppy played a major role in his decision to fight for ownership of her, he told the Observer. He insists the animals at his show are well cared-for and treated humanely.
-- Lindsay Barnett
Photo: Lilly in a July 16 photo. Credit: Jeff Siner / Associated Press