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Once upon a time there was a circus

Madrid is following the paternalism of other Spanish cities in banning the use of animals in the ring

Progress, or it might be regress, it is not clear which, has generated an epidemic of professions at risk of extinction or that are already extinct: bullfighter in Catalonia, marathon runner on Perejil, treasurer in the Popular Party, journalist in Syria. And animal tamer in a circus.

The Ringling circus in New York, 2010.
The Ringling circus in New York, 2010. AFP

Madrid City Hall has just “outlawed” this last group, following the lead of Barcelona, Malaga, Lleida, and Cadiz. And not simply because of Mayor Manuela Carmena’s paternalism, but with the acquiescence of center-right party Ciudadanos in the deification of Walt Disney, which resulted in the global example-setting last December that was the closure of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

More than a century after the two franchises merged, the world’s leading circus had no choice but to close, despite having promised to give spectators “the greatest show on Earth.”

Our societies are becoming aseptic. And what’s more, hypocritical

There are a number of reasons why the US circus closed: changing tastes, the internet, other forms of entertainment, the omnipresent competition of Donald Trump vomiting fire, but one of the most obvious is the reduced number of elephants and other animals brought about by pressure from animal-rights groups.

Those groups found it degrading, as does Madrid City Hall, to use animals in circuses. An anachronism, they called it, and intolerable treatment of pachyderms and other animals. As a result, circuses are either closing or having to find a way to go on without people sticking their heads in a tiger’s mouth or without making lions jump acrobatically through fiery hoops.

A circus without a circus isn’t a circus – leaving aside circuses like the Cirque du Soleil, which have reinvented themselves by using poetry and theater – in the same way that bullfights aren’t bullfights without blood and death. Because blood and death are their raison d’etre, a creative contrast if you like: Eros and Thanatos.

Our societies are becoming aseptic, lacking in smell, color, and taste. And what’s more, hypocritical, because this Franciscan concept of our brother elephant and our sister tigress doesn’t mean that animals aren’t locked up and slaughtered on an industrial scale; more than ever in fact, but also more than ever out of sight from the view of the model citizen.

Soon we’ll be suppressing the Eucharist at Mass. Soon mankind will be more domesticated than an elephant in a Ringling circus, suppressing from our memory and our consciousness the song that familiarized so many Spanish children with the circus – panem et circenses – and chocolate: it turns out that “once upon a time there was a circus” wasn’t so much a children’s ditty as a premonition, a presage, a preventive epitaph to the glory of the tamer that whispered to lions.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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