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Flying Squirrels Owner Speaks Out on Alligator Wrestling 

The owner of the Richmond Flying Squirrels says any future use of animals to promote the minor-league baseball team won't be billed as “wrestling.”

The Squirrels took heat last week from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which issued an action alert decrying a pre-game show billed as alligator wrestling at the June 18 homer against Pennsylvania's Altoona Curve. (Read the Style story here.)

During the 10-minute show, Flying Squirrels General Manager Bill Papierniak straddled a 7 1/2-foot alligator on tour from Orlando-based Gatorland, a reptilian theme park and animal reserve. A Gatorland employee also sat on the alligator, performing tricks to open and close its jaws, while an emcee announced facts about gators to the crowd.

Squirrels chief executive manager Chuck Domino says most of the hundreds of e-mails complaining about the event to his staff were form letters sent from PETA advocates.

DiBella, who's also a New York-based boxing promoter and entertainment producer, says next time the Squirrels will be more sensitive with animal entertainment, and that he's sympathetic to PETA's cause. “I am an animal rights advocate myself,” he says.

“Nothing dangerous occurred and the animal wasn't harmed in any way,” DiBella says of his assessment of the show. “But even in a lighthearted manner or comical manner, we won't do any promotion that is promoted as the wrestling or fighting of any animal” in the future.

DiBella didn't attend the June 18 game, but says he's watched a video of the event following a Style Weekly reporter's description of clips from the show sent in an e-mail to Style from Squirrels director of media Anthony Opperman. (Readers can view the video excerpts here.)

When asked whether he was aware of the promotion before it occurred, DiBella says he has “a lot of professionals running teams” and that he does not “micromanage” his ventures, but that he “was aware something was happening” involving alligator education.

Regarding the Squirrels' hiring of Gatorland -- which Gatorland official Kenny Danberry says involved a special permit from the state department of Game and Inland Fisheries -- DiBella says, “to my knowledge they have no history of abuse or neglect. If you Google them nothing pops up.”

DiBella says he's spoken to Papierniak by phone about the event, but adds, “I don't think anyone on my staff did anything wrong -- I didn't slap anyone's wrist.” 

DiBella, who rallied investors to pump $2 million into Diamond improvements before the Squirrels' debut April 15, also says he remains committed to building a new baseball stadium in Richmond. “The Diamond is not a long-term solution,” DiBella says. “It's an antiquated facility.” As previously reported in Style, he's hired contractors to work on the idea.

“The surrounding counties, the RMA, the city, they will all be involved in conversations, and there have already been conversations with all of them,” Dibella says.

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