Jozsef Ritchie, smiling and with arms outstretched, jumped from the white horse he was riding onto another that followed, then onto a third. As his sequined costumes glittered, Richter balanced Merrylu’s hair on his own while he stood astride a horse circling the ring.
The couple’s fantastic dexterity brought 3,500 people to their feet at the 42nd International Circus Festival, Monte Carlo, this past weekend and earned them the top prize of Gold Clown at what is the Oscars of big tops.
The festival was held amid a significant shift within the circus industry. The famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States closed last year. In Europe, many countries have limited the use of animals in this popular form of entertainment. The Italian parliament, for instance, voted in November to phase out the use of circus animals. Belgium, Greece, Malta, and many other countries have already done this. The performers of Monaco are concerned about the future of circuses because of this relentless campaign to ban exotic animals and even domesticated ones from the ring.
After his award-winning show, Richter said, “Real circuses are full of clowns, acrobats, and animals. We want to keep this tradition.” The act was a tribute to the first circus, which took place 250 years ago in spring. British cavalry officer Philip Astley gathered music and jugglers to accompany his horse tricks on a London-area field. This performance spawned the modern circus.
Flavio Togni grew up with elephants and grew to be a producer at Italy’s American Circus, who was a judge in the annual competition. We could lose a large part of our audience and may even have to shut down.
Last week in Monte Carlo, fans of the circus made a promise to combat what they believe are false claims about institutional animal cruelty. Alain Frere – the 82-year-old artistic advisor who organized the first festival of 1974 on the orders of Monaco’s circus-loving Prince Rainier III – thundered, “We will do everything necessary to keep the animals in the Circus.” “We must fight for these stars to continue their work.” “Hands off my Circus!”
Princess Stephanie, daughter of Rainier of Monaco and American actress Princess Grace [Kelly] Monaco, is the ring’s most generous and essential advocate. Princess Stephanie, a former elephant trainer who married an acrobat and ran off with him, spends her time with Baby and Nepal, two of the elephants she has rescued. The government of Monaco, which is wedged between France, Italy, and the Mediterranean, has her support to erect a tent in a public space next to Monaco’s tiny heliport. On a temporary midway, vendors selling French fries and popcorn set up their shops in the chic downtown.
The event is an annual gathering of the best performers worldwide. It includes a glamorous gala hosted by Prince Albert II, Stephanie’s brother. Talent scouts attend the event to find performers for the upcoming year. The performances this year ranged from simple but deceptive acts, such as a young Spaniard juggling seven lit balls with an eighth on his head in the darkness, to three Hungarians who dressed as astronauts performed moves that appeared to defy the gravity on a giant moving metal truss perched high above the ring.
The Richters were the festival’s main attraction this year, along with Carmen Zander. She performed a series of heart-stopping stunts with four Bengal Tigers and one White Tiger. At a recent press conference, Zander insisted that “they are my love and life.” The vast majority of these shows were dominated by human acts, which indicates that this will be the dominant force in the circus.
Animal rights advocates claim that studies have shown that animals subjected to training, transportation, and frequent performances can suffer stress and injuries. “Malta has adopted this ban because our government acknowledges that circuses are not a place where animals can express their normal behavior patterns nor do they provide shelter or protection from pain and injury,” Marlene Mzi, a Malta Representative in the European Parliament, said at a meeting in Brussels in 2017.
The animal bans point to other studies which reach more nuanced conclusions. For example, no evidence transporting circus lions increases stress levels. Animals are monitored constantly, given social interaction and more freedom to move than in many zoos. Animal handlers in some countries like France and Germany must pass rigorous tests to prove their knowledge and competence.
The supporters of the animals in Monte Carlo have declared they will not give up. On the princess’s request, announcements were made at the circus asking spectators to sign the petition sent to the European Parliament to support using circus animals. By the end of the week, more than 1,000 people had signed the petition. Princess Stephanie, a former singer and fashion designer, has become a prominent spokesperson for the cause. She said to a French magazine that the issue was fake. She insisted that European circus animals are subject to a complex web of regulations ensuring adequate and humane treatment.
The public at Monte Carlo was invited to see the animals before and after shows. Meryrlu Riecher rode a zebra in the ring, and Jozsef supervised a carousel that included elephants, camels, llamas, and zebras, all moving in opposite directions.
Joe Saly is an Italian circus performer who performed with two sets of weights on cords. He received a standing ovation for his animal-free Sunday afternoon performance.
It may be impossible to compel the notoriously independent circus community to take a united political stand. Some managers and artists at the event noted that those circuses that include animals–particularly ones deemed wild–are steadily shrinking and that the trend seems unstoppable. There are only 12 circus elephants in the United States and about 30 in France. Transferring elephants to zoos or the wild is usually prohibited, so these are the last of the species.
Cirque du Soleil, and similar entertainments that do not use animals at all, have proven to be both popular and profitable. One Monte Carlo performer who requested anonymity said, “The circus evolves constantly, and the future will be without animals.” Human acrobatics has always been the center of circuses in some countries. In China, animals, for instance, were not part of the traditional circus.
Frere, a long-time event organizer, admitted during an intermission that it is essential to change to maintain the 250-year-old entertainment. He said young people transformed the circus through music, emotion, and erotic power. There is little doubt that the show will continue with or without domesticated or wild animals.