The Planet

Where Will All the Freed Mexican Circus Animals Go?

by Mark Hay

April 1, 2015
Medrano Circus in Cyprus. Photo by Leonid Mamchenkov via Flickr

For the past few weeks, animal rights proponents in America have been celebrating the decision by the Ringling Bros. Circus, a renowned act and cornerstone of the nation’s entertainment history, to retire its 13 touring elephants by 2018. Long criticized for their cruel treatment of caged and harried performing animals, the fact that a major circus has taken this step of its own accord provides hope that a favorable environment is opening up for more reforms. Yet on the same day that the Ringling Bros. announced their decision, lawmakers in Mexico passed a bill that dwarfed the retirement of 13 elephants. As of July 8, 2015, it will be illegal for Mexican circuses to use any animals in their acts, on pain of the creature’s seizure by authorities and a $70,000 fine. This is a showstopping gain for animals in one of the world’s most circus-happy nations, but it comes with a hitch: No one in Mexico is quite sure what they’re going to do with the coming glut of newly freed, possibly traumatized circus animals.  

Mexico’s law didn’t come out of nowhere. By the time the law passed, 12 of 31 states and the federal district of Mexico City had all passed local prohibitions on circus animals, spurred on by proactive campaigns by animal rights groups. The issue was pushed forward in the spring and summer of 2014—raids on small circuses highlighted the level of abuse animals suffer under their tamers, and activists took to the streets in vocal and highly visible protests. Finally, in December the legislatures overwhelmingly voted to amend the General Wildlife Act with a nationwide ban, declaring that circus animal acts had no educational value and prevented animals from their right to grow up in their own habitats. President Peña Nieto was slow to sign the law, even though it was solicited by an allied party, but as of March he’d ratified the legislation.

This isn’t the first national ban on the use of circus animals though—Mexico was actually the tenth country to pass such legislation, following Bolivia, Colombia, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Peru, and Slovenia. Another 21 countries, about 28 Canadian municipalities, and 49 American cities and counties also have limited, regional bans in place. But the Mexican law is of special significance, as unbeknownst to many outside the country, Mexico has a huge culture of cheap, popular, animal-driven circuses (including the world’s oldest active traveling circus, Atayde Hermanos, founded in 1888). The Mexican government records 200 active, licensed circuses, but some estimates claim that nearly 600 circuses ply their trade throughout the nation. Authorities know of at least 2,000 animals employed in Mexican circuses, a huge number compared to the aproximately 300 that Animal Defenders International estimate tour with circuses in the U.S. But circus folk suspect there are more than 4,000 beasts currently performing in Mexico. Given that Ringling Bros. needs three years to retire just 13 elephants, figuring out what to do with all these animals will be a tall order.

In recent opinion polls, nearly 70 percent of the population said they’d continue to support circuses sans animals. Yet non-animal circuses, including those like Guadalajara’s Magic Special Cyber Circus, which uses a $50,000 elephant robot in place of actual elephants, have had pretty poor attendance to date. Some in the trade estimate that already up to 10 percent of the nation’s circuses have started shutting their doors in anticipation of the ban (including Atayde Hermanos last fall). The president of the Mexican circus association predicts that up to 50,000 people involved in the circus economy could lose their jobs to the new legal regime.

Never turn your back on five tigers. Photo by chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons

Yet it’s the animals currently in circuses who might come out worst from this legislation. Humans can be re-trained, aided, and otherwise shuffled into new and fulfilling jobs (albeit with difficulty). But the animals just have nowhere to go. The Green Party, which drafted the legislation, hoped that the animals could all just go to sanctuaries or zoos, though the bill authors admitted they hadn’t figured out particulars of the performers’ post-circus homes. Yet even at the best of times, with the best funding and national support, many sanctuaries have waiting lists to take in animals. And as of now, local zoo and wildlife officials in Mexico say that there just aren’t enough resources for them to take in all the animals the circus needs to purge.

This wasn’t exactly a case of legislative negligence. In previous national circus bans, while some animals were unfortunately just smuggled to nearby countries for use in other circuses, most managed to find local homes. And for the most part, local shelters picked up the few remaining animals. That was fair precedent to turn towards, but it just didn’t reflect the sheer scale of the problem in circus-happy Mexico. Yet lawmakers had no way to plan for that excess in detail, as before the law’s passage there was no comprehensive inventory of performing animals in the nation. So the government seems to have done what it believed was right, trusting in its ability to troubleshoot and triage later.

“We will ensure that all the animals have top-level destinies that attend to their comfort and wellbeing,” The Guardian quoted Guillermo Haro, a chief environmental prosecutor backing the bill, as saying early in March. 

Yet even if the bill was passed with the best of intentions and working on the best knowledge and precedent available to lawmakers, it still creates an unfortunate situation in Mexico. Government officials from the federal environmental agency are scrambling to find homes for these animals, vetting private zoos among other avenues. But Armando Cedeno of the Mexican circus association says he fears that dozens to hundreds of animals will have to simply be put down for lack of a place to go. Some might argue that this is a more humane fate than a life of torture, but it’s certainly far from ideal. Mexico may manage to find some way of getting their animals to foreign sanctuaries. Or enough private, authorized zoos and owners may emerge to solve the crisis. But that seems unlikely. Instead, this important piece of animal rights legislation will serve as much a bulwark to activists as a warning to lawmakers: We can and should seek to end the brutality many animals suffer—but we really ought to think through what happens to the animals once the law has permanently pried open their cage doors.

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Where Will All the Freed Mexican Circus Animals Go?