Kessler, known simply as "Bernie" or "Bernie the Clown," has stood at the entrance of Phoenix Zoo for the last few weeks, collecting signatures and cash donations from zoo patrons. His petition is addressed "To All Governments of the World and the United Nations," and protests the killing of elephants, rhinoceroses, gorillas and other endangered species. Bernie requests an international ban on the importation and sale of parts and by-products of endangered species, along with a permanent sanctuary to be guarded and manned by troops of the United Nations.
"This is not from me," Bernie says, motioning to the text on the petition. "It is divine."
Bernie says he's on a "mission of mercy and kindness" with his pro-animal organization Help Elevate Life for Pets (HELP).
Zoo officials here and in Los Angeles--where he has also raised funds--say he's a nuisance who leads patrons to believe they are helping elephants when, in fact, they are simply handing their money over to Bernie and others he brings along to collect with him.
According to the fine print in Bernie's own petition, the zoo officials are correct.
Bernie, a trim man, wears a PETsMART tee shirt and Avia tennis shoes along with the clown suit. A white hat with flaps in the back protects his neck from the sun. Oblivious to his dirty fingernails and ripped ruffles, passers-by are drawn almost magically to the clown. They ask for zoo hours, or directions to Desert Botanical Garden. They even ask about the petition, despite the sign the zoo has posted nearby noting that Bernie's organization is not endorsed by the zoo. The zoo patrons speak and sign and donate willingly.
"Thank you again. God bless you," Bernie says to an older man in a blue jumpsuit who approaches him and asks to sign his petition. As he pockets a dollar bill in exchange for a paper fan, Bernie tells the man's back, "The money not only helps the elephants, it helps the poor and needy in Arizona."
Few donors bother to read Bernie's petition. If they did, they'd learn that his "International Petition of Mercy" raises money for more parochial concerns. "Your donation may not only save the elephant," according to a dense block of type at the bottom of the page. ". . . . Most of your donation will help feed and shelter the individual that solicits donations, and to help the poor and kind men in our shelter at 4127 N. 9th Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona who live there without drugs and alcohoul [sic] and to build affordable housing for the poor and unfortunates of society. . . ."
To put it more succinctly, the hand that takes your money is the hand that gets your money--minus half, which goes directly to Bernie. Bernie uses it, he says, to support his "shelter" and save kittens and puppies. Leftover funds are used to photocopy the petitions.
Officials at Phoenix Zoo are not happy with Bernie's methods. But there's not much they can do about it.
"The petition is very honest. It's just that nobody reads it," says Warren Iliff, executive director of Phoenix Zoo. Iliff says the zoo has received 20 complaints about Bernie's fund-raising style. But because the zoo sits in the publicly owned Papago Park, there's nothing Iliff, zoo security or anyone else can do. Bernie's right to free speech is protected under the First Amendment.
Iliff says he thinks it's wonderful that people want to sign a petition to save the elephants. "The problem is that it [the petition] isn't doing anything. I mean, it's leading people down a false road," Iliff says. "It's crazy. The United Nations has nothing to do with it. "My guess," he adds, "is these [petitions] are just not even going anywhere, you know, because all they are is an avenue to engage somebody sympathetically and then put in their hand a fan and then ask them if they would give money to reimburse for the fan and help their cause." Bernie counters, "They don't like the idea that I am trying to have a . . . win-win situation" in which animals and people are saved.
As for his petition? "If you don't believe, personally, that this petition will be passed, not only by the United Nations but by the world, then what you're saying is that this world is ready for destruction," Bernie says.
Bernie, who describes himself as a millionaire inventor who lost most of his fortune in a divorce, says he moved from Los Angeles to Phoenix two and a half years ago to set up a homeless shelter. The "shelter," located near Ninth Avenue and Indian School Road, is a small apartment building. Residents are charged $50 a week, Bernie says, but not everyone pays on time.
Bernie still commutes periodically to Los Angeles, where he solicits contributions at tourist destinations such as Los Angeles Zoo. In fact, officials at the L.A. Zoo consider Bernie something of an institution. Bernie and his people have been around for about five years, says Deborah Pollack, public relations specialist for the L.A. Zoo. HELP's L.A. operation is different; no petition, and the merchandise is an upgrade from the paper fans. Bernie offers stuffed animals, finger puppets, balloons and pinwheels in exchange for donations to HELP, Pollack says.
Over the years, L.A. Zoo officials have engaged in their share of confrontations with Bernie. But that pesky First Amendment has kept the publicly owned and operated zoo from monkeying with the clown.
"I don't think anyone here is real thrilled with him, but we're kinda stuck with him," Pollack says.
In 1991, Bernie agreed to pay $40,000 as part of a stipulated judgment after he and his organization were sued by the California attorney general. The AG charged that Bernie was keeping money he raised through HELP, rather than using it to save animals. But the state could prove only that Bernie engaged in shoddy recordkeeping.
"My take on Bernie Kessler is that he's actually for real. He's on the up and up," says James Cordi, the deputy attorney general who handled the case. Cordi says Bernie is still behind in reporting his organization's earnings but maintains that the clown is "not putting this money in his pocket. We looked as closely as we could for that and I think that he's really not putting it in his pocket, he's out there--a very strange guy--but he's out there to save the world and whatever."
In the weeks he's been at Phoenix Zoo, Bernie says he's collected thousands of signatures. He declines to estimate his gross earnings, but does say he collects between $75 and $100 a day. His minions collect about $60, he guesses; he keeps half of their take.
Iliff charges that Bernie is underestimating his take. "I've seen him collect $60 in an hour," he scoffs.
"I sort of like Bernie," Iliff admits. "But it just seems so awful to me to have people do that. And I admire what he's doing for his people, but they could be working."
Others don't share Iliff's grudging affection. Roger Matulevicz, a volunteer for the national group Defenders of Wildlife, sits behind a table near Phoenix Zoo's entrance, watching Bernie operate. Matulevicz's table is piled high with information about the endangered Mexican wolf: literature, petitions, memorabilia and a donation jar. There's also a wolf skin, complete with head, and samples of wolf droppings.
Speaking quietly, a furtive eye on the clown, Matulevicz gripes that HELP is diverting attention from the plight of the Mexican wolf.
"They assume that Bernie is with us and they sign his petition and just ignore me," he says. Matulevicz, who says he speaks for himself, not Defenders of Wildlife, adds that he's had his share of heated conversations with Kessler about HELP's fund-raising techniques.
"The fact of the matter is it's just very difficult to hold a serious discussion with a man in a clown suit," Matulevicz says.
"I really feel like I'm doing something meaningful and I'm taking my time to volunteer 20 to 25 hours a week manning this booth, trying to hold down a 40-hour-a-week job and plus going to school," he says. "To me, it's like he's [Kessler] giving this whole cause of trying to work for endangered species a black eye."
The irony, of course, is that it's easier to get donations by promising to save elephants than it is to panhandle for hungry humans. Bernie and his men "couldn't just go up to somebody and say, 'Give me some money for the homeless.' They [the zoo patrons] wouldn't do it," Iliff says. Bernie says he has no qualms about asking for cash--be it for elephants, puppies or people. As long as he and his men can make more in front of the zoo than by working minimum-wage jobs, they'll stay. "Call me the king of beggars," Bernie says, "and I'll be proud to wear that crown for the rest of my life.