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Circuses in Mexico Are On a Tightrope Over Animals

Clowns and acrobats are marching in Mexico City against a law banning animals in shows.
June 14, 2014, 1:13pm
Image via AP/Rebecca Blackell

When it comes to love of circuses, Mexico does not clown around. For hundreds of years, traveling and fixed circuses have captivated Mexicans of all classes, especially with the marquee draw of live performances with tigers and elephants.

Circus-going became a social tradition able to survive the enormous cultural shifts Mexico has faced since the onslaught of globalization. Until now.

Since late 2013, seven of Mexico’s 31 states have outlawed animals in circus performances and, on Monday, Mexico City became the latest authority to prohibit the practice.


The local law goes into effect within a year, with circuses facing hefty fines if they fall out of line and trot out any animals for a paying public during performances. France’s Cirque de Soleil, legislators reasoned, is successful and beloved by audiences without the use of animals.

Supporters of the law said animals suffer cruel conditions in circus captivity.

But in response, clowns and acrobats in Mexico City are calling foul play, arguing that the law directly targets their industry, while permitting other entertainment with animals to continue.

Circus performers took to the streets a day after the Federal District’s Legislative Assembly passed the new rules (by a 42-0 margin with 11 abstentions). The performers, many in costume, marched merrilly through downtown Mexico City under a hot Tuesday sun, claiming that banning animals in circuses would put them out of business and leave hundreds of families unemployed.

“The first thing people ask is ‘Do you have animals?' And if you don’t have animals, they won’t come,” one performer told the Associated Press.

During the session debates on the law, Alejandro Robles, a lawmaker with the main Mexican leftist party, PRD, warned that the revision to the city’s Public Spectacles Law is legally questionable because it does not cover the animals used in other arenas, such as cockfighting, which is still practiced in underground networks in Mexico.


“It’s contradictory,” Robles said in an interview with VICE News. He called bullfighting an exhibition of animal torture, and also noted that marine animal shows are not mentioned in the new rules.

Lawmakers opposed to the law said they were not against the protection of animals, but argued that the specific legislation is discriminatory. “This reform feels anti-circus to me, and it could be unconstitutional,” Robles said.

There are 183 permitted circuses in Mexico City. The new law will negatively impact nearly 50,000 employees, according to Mexico’s National Circus Association, but also means a life of retirement in a sanctuary for as many as 5,500 animals — mostly elephants, tigers, camels, and hippos.

Querétaro state first outlawed circuses with animal acts in December 2013. Six other states have followed in six months, a relatively rapid state-level legislative drive being pushed by the officialist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and the smaller Green Party, aligned in the PRI on major initiatives but continually dogged by corruption claims.

Circus performers in the state of Morelos successfully won a stay on the law, which remains in place pending appeals, and the acrobats and clowns said this week they would try the same strategy in the courts against the Mexico City law.

A main proponent of the changes, lawmaker Jesús Serna, said he was empathetic to the concerns of the circus employees, but noted the widely documented conditions of misery that circus animals experience in captivity, and said times have changed.

“We are not insensitive to the circus familes’ situation,” Serna said in an interview. “But let’s not be afraid of change. Yes to circuses without animals. We must evolve the spectacle.”

Image via Flickr