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Dancing bears and twerking Smurfs

One of the first things Craig and I did when he arrived in Cartagena was go to the circus.  I had spotted a large circus tent across from the mall here in Cartagena on one of my walks. The sign said “Las Vegas Circus Circus,” and I heard “You can leave your hat on”  pouring boisterously out of the tent when I walked by, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Sadly, I don’t have pictures for this post. But maybe, for the dignity of everyone involved, that is for the best.

Tickets were 15,000 pesos (about $8) or 20,000 pesos for better seating. The inside of the tent looked just like any small circus back home, except it was a stifling steam bath inside. Sweat poured down our bodies as we waited. A family near us bought some cotton candy, and they had barely removed the plastic wrap before the pink, fluffy spun sugar was a crystallized, sticky mess.

Ponies ran around the ring and did tricks, there were tightrope walkers (no net!) and scantily clad dancers who camoflauged their sweaty skin with body glitter (old bellydancers trick!).

The Peruvian circus llamas were something I hadn’t seen before, but their tricks were very similar to the ponies. It was shaping up to be a very typical, and enjoyable circus.

Then they brought out the dancing bears. Oh my.

The bears wore colorful skirts and leather muzzles, and walked clumsily on their hind legs. One bear carried a bouquet of roses across the ring to its trainer. Another one walzed. I was paralyzed with horror, and I could feel Craig stiffen beside me. We were accustomed to trained ponies and dogs, but this was a scene of animal cruelty and humiliation from the past that we had only heard about. I kept remembering a book I loved as a child, Knobby Boys To the Rescue, where the “rescue” featured a depressed mama bear in a colorful skirt and shackles.

After the dancing bears, the circus went on as usual. More glittery salsa dancing girls. Some clowns. We were beginning to relax again. And then, the highlight of the show.

Six or seven Little People, men ranging from about 3 to 4 feet tall, ran into the ring. Dressed as Smurfs. Well, one was dressed as Smurfette. And they danced. The highlight of their dancing was always to turn and wiggle the little blue tails attached to their white shorts. The audience loved them.

Craig’s jaw dropped. My hand flew up to my mouth and never left. We were seeing circus midgets — in blueface!

The act went on and on, and the audience roared with delight. The grand finale involved Smurf twerking. I cannot even describe that to you.

(I should probably tell you that the Smurfs movie is in theaters here now, so this is a topical act.)

When we travel, we try not to be judgmental. We hope to accept other cultures, and different solutions to social and moral dilemmas. On the way home, Craig and I went through every bit of moral relativism imaginable to justify the exploitation we’d just seen. At least they have jobs. What if you’re born a Little Person and you just really dream of being a circus clown, shouldn’t that career be available to you?

We also talked about the bears and wondered why we don’t feel the same way watching dogs or ponies do tricks. It’s what we’re used to, I suppose, so we are immune to the ugliness of exploiting wild animals for human entertainment. One thing travel will do for you, if you have an open mind, is to make you aware of your own culture in new ways.

That was nearly a month ago. This morning, I saw a news report: On Wednesday, the Colombian congress passed a law banning ALL circus animals in Colombia. Once the president signs the law, the circuses will have two years to phase out the animals (but those found to be practicing animal cruelty will have their stock removed immediately and will face criminal charges).

I wonder if a nonprofit group will emerge to help find new homes for the animals?

I wonder when the US will do the same?

And what about the Smurfs?