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Animal rights group Equinac and the Izquierda Unida party unsuccessfully tried to ban the Circo Jamaica circus from performing in El Ejido (Almeria) recently. It was the latest episode in the bitter war being waged between activists and circuses that use live animals. Richard Torné went to see the embattled circus in Vera recently to find out if it’s time for such shows to call it a day.

Jorge is a troubled man. As the head of the Circo Jamaica, a travelling circus currently doing the rounds in Almería, he is seething with anger at animal rights groups, whom he blames for making his life and livelihood impossible. “Even before we get to a town activists have already pulled down our posters. They’ve even thrown stones at us.”

A modestly run family business, Circo Jamaica has been around since the fifties – an impressive feat by any account – but like all circus acts it is struggling to survive in the 21st century.

“No-one has a right to criticise us,” Jorge continues, eyeing me suspiciously, perhaps aware that I wouldn’t normally choose to spend a Saturday evening going to a circus. “If you own a dog and you take it everywhere on a lead, how is that better than what we are doing? I feel as though I’m being lynched in public, but if I’m to be judged it should be for what I do and not for what others have done.” He is of course referring to the use of animals in circuses. Behind the (fading) glitter, the clowns and the jugglers the big top is facing its biggest crisis in years, trying to convince an increasingly sceptical public that watching a show with tutu-donning monkeys and applauding seals is nothing but a bit of harmless fun.

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Anita and Jorge, who run the Circo Jamaica, a family-run circus with more than half a century of history, are battling against animal campaigners while struggling to survive in the 21st century as a viable business

 

Tonight’s performance in Vera ends melodramatically with a rendition of Queen’s ‘The Show Must Go On’ blaring out from the speakers. It may be overtly ironic, but the plaintive cry from a dying artist neatly sums up the struggle of these circus performers.

The troupe travels hundreds of kilometres across the country every year. Come rain or shine the artists – clowns, jugglers, contortionists and trainers, both male and female – muck in together, erecting heavy marquees or taking turns at the box office. In between shows they also have to negotiate with increasingly hostile councils to obtain permits. These were rejected in Níjar just two weeks later, not because of the performing animals as such but because these were part of a travelling circus. Jorge fumes back, sending me text messages: “Aren’t pet dogs also abused? Should Níjar council also ban everyone from having pets?”

As far as he’s concerned there is no distinction between a wild and a domesticated animal. “They are just convenient tags we place on them.”

Serafin Pedrosa, spokesman for the Izquierda Unida party in El Ejido which tried to ban Jorge’s circus, disagrees. “The needs of a wild animal are very different to domestic pets, which have adapted to live with humans over thousands of years. We are also openly against the use of cages which is where wild animals are habitually kept.”

Animal associations have been exposing the underbelly of performing animal shows and the methods used by circus trainers for years, such as how they break elephants by forcing them to stand on a concrete floor for 23 hours a day for up to six months. One of the most publicised cases involved Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey – reputedly the world’s oldest circus. Last year it announced it would be retiring its 42 elephants earlier than expected in the wake of complaints from activists (although the circus denied this) and the morass of local US laws on the use of animals in live shows.

In Spain to date, more than 280 municipalities have banned circuses that use performing animals, according to pressure group Infocircos. In Almería province, only Níjar council has so far joined that growing list, despite a regional government law banning their use if the animal is “subjected to unnatural treatment”. The war is unrelenting. While Lorca council in Murcia rejected a motion in support of animal-free circuses last month, Librilla in the same region voted to ban their use soon after.

The show in Vera is about to start. There is a reasonably sized crowd on this unpleasantly dank, January night, but it’s almost exclusively made up of awe-struck toddlers and their duty-bound parents.

The show begins innocuously enough with a mismatch of dance and theatre, including the odd cinematic reference thrown in for good measure. Later on two rheas – sprayed white – are inexplicably joined by a galloping Emu that’s unceremoniously chased off the stage by a man in a Wile E. Coyote costume. A pony and a huge dromedary – the latter also sprayed white – rounds off the bizarre spectacle. The star of the show, a 16-year-old female puma, makes a token appearance but proves uncooperative (I was later told she was on heat), and ringmaster Jorge is forced to explain why this seemingly fearsome feline is behaving more like a listless household moggy.

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The way things were…and still are in many circuses – poster dating from 1900

The overriding impression is that there is nothing in the act that couldn’t be done without animals. Instead, the public is left with a gimcrack of disconnected and ill-conceived sketches, as though someone had reached the conclusion that the mere presence of live animals would be enough to get the crowd going. And as campaigners often state, the animals don’t get a say as to whether they should perform or not.

Afterwards I’m taken to the enclosure where some of the animals are kept, but it’s pitch black, so it’s impossible to determine in what condition they are being kept. Jorge and his sister Anita are equally guarded about showing me their puma named, oddly enough, ‘Celda’ (cell), who is in a separate cage and I never get to see close up.

Jorge and Anita are both keen to remind me how much they adore their beloved Celda and that they treat her in much the same way any conscientious dog owner would. “I want you to understand how important this animal is to me and my sister,” he says. To prove the point he later sends me a recording of a song he wrote about her and a video of the three of them going out for a leisurely walk in the countryside – with Celda on a lead.

The two insist she is never forced to perform, but they are less able to explain why on the night I went she was trotted out regardless, or why a large apex predator is paraded under bright lights before a paying public as a rule.

He ends on a glum note, saying he’s not convinced his business can survive without performing animals. “It’s the big circuses that do well without animals and, anyway, the public is still attracted by the sight of them.”

His rival, Pedrosa, has a much clearer picture: “There is no turning back. Society is changing – the ban will come, like it or not.”

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