MEXICO CITY — It is a weekday evening under the circus tent, and Bebeto Fuentes does it all effortlessly. He soars on the trapeze, vaults on and off a cantering horse, keeps an eye on the tigers, spins off the trampoline and takes a turn as a melancholy clown.
But once he is out of the ring, he talks anxiously, worry on his young face. If the ban on circus animals that was approved here last week goes ahead, he said, the Fuentes Gasca Brothers Circus, founded by his grandparents, will not survive.
“My grandmother taught my father; he taught us,” said Fuentes, 20, who appears with his brothers as the Fuentes Boys, twice each evening and four times on Sundays. “I was born among the tigers and the monkeys.”
Mexico City’s legislative assembly voted last week to prohibit animals from appearing in circuses, a ban that will take effect a year after the law is published in the city register. That may take a while: The city government has agreed to meet with circus owners first.
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The ban echoes rising concern in many countries about the treatment of circus animals, stoked by undercover videos circulated by animal-rights groups on social media, investigative magazine articles and high-profile lawsuits.
Mexico’s tight-knit community of family-owned circuses, whose big tops seem like a midcentury relic compared with the glittering spectacle that most Americans know, is on the defensive, arguing that a cherished Mexican tradition would vanish and tens of thousands of people, many of them the working poor, would be thrown out of work.
“We know how to put on a show without animals, but people don’t want to see it,” said Armando Cedeño, the president of the National Union of Circus Owners and Performers, who began his career as a trapeze artist when he was a boy. “People say they would prefer to see a horse rather than the best trapeze artist.”
Supporters of the ban say that it is an attempt to restore dignity to animals.
“It isn’t in a bear’s nature to wear roller skates,” said Jesús Sesma Suárez, the city legislator who introduced the bill. “It isn’t in a tiger’s nature to jump through a flaming ring. It isn’t in an elephant’s nature to sit on a stool. Our thinking has to evolve.”
Six Mexican states have already banned circus animals, and there are full-blown bans or local bans in most Latin American countries. Many countries in Europe ban wild animals from circuses, and a few ban all animals.
The United States lags behind other countries, although a growing number of municipalities have begun to pass partial bans, said Delcianna Winders, a lawyer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The ban is an issue that has gained some traction for Sesma’s Green Ecologist party, which despite its name has failed to convince many voters of its concern for the environment. One reason may be that its last big cause was a failed push to restore Mexico’s death penalty.
Circus families ask why advocates’ concern for animals does not extend to a much more cruel spectacle: bullfighting.
Beginning in September, politicians and businessmen will assemble on Sundays at Mexico City’s Plaza México to see and be seen as the bulls in the ring below are baited and speared.
Bullfighting, Sesma said, is a battle the Green party simply cannot win, even if it tried.
The circus families argue that they are an easy political target because their audience has no political power.
“This show is for the people who can’t afford to go to Las Vegas to see Cirque du Soleil,” said Bebeto Fuentes’ brother Juventino, 23, referring to the expensive Canadian circus featuring acrobats and other performers. A ticket to his circus could go for as little as $2.30, with the most expensive ticket costing $15.40. “Ordinary people go to the Mexican circus.”
The four Fuentes brothers say that attendance is dropping because of the campaign against them. But they argue that removing the animals from their show will drive everyone away. “The image of the circus are the animals,” said Bebeto.
Before the show, Bebeto and Juventino led the way to an animal enclosure behind the tent, pitched at the edge of a Sam’s Club parking lot.
A dromedary, two llamas, a zebra and three horses stood in pens on fresh sawdust. Nearby, five Siberian tigers, somnolent after lunch, lay in small cages.
The animal portion makes up less than a quarter of the fast-paced show, which is just under two hours. At the end, beaming children cluster around the Fuentes brothers in the lobby as parents snap photographs.
In an hour, for the second show of the night, Bebeto Fuentes will do it all again, as he will for as long as the circus survives.
“The day things go bad,” he said, “my animals will eat before I do.”