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The perfect storm: How the Bolivian Ban on Animal Circuses was won

Posted: 1 December 2009. Updated: 1 December 2009

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In June President Morales signed Law 4040 banning wild and domestic animals in travelling circuses throughout Bolivia. This is the first national circus ban in South America and the world’s first ban on all animal acts.

Here, we look back over ADI’s four year operation leading to this historic move. A campaign that began with our field officers investigating the country’s circuses, saw publicity events, reports, city bans, various drafts of legislation, had us fighting off the attempts of a US show to bring in animal acts and saw campaigners lobbying shoulder to shoulder right to the end. A perfect storm of activity that led to this important victory.

Collecting the evidence


In 2005, ADI’s senior field officer for the region stepped wearily off a flight in La Paz on his arrival in Bolivia.

What was becoming a remarkable investigation spanning two years, had covered Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia (and was to be followed by Brazil). The man hauling his video cameras down the aircraft steps had been attacked twice, but had infiltrated deep into the heart of the South American circus industry where we filmed a cruel trainer beating his dogs, and poor Indiano the elderly lion being beaten and kicked. Bolivia was to be followed by Colombia to conclude this investigation. Some cameras were now held together with tape, but within days we were recording life inside Bolivia’s animal circuses.

What made these countries important was the movement of animals across their borders. When we filmed three brown bears in Circo Abuhabda we had already encountered them in Peru. The wretched, disturbed bears were living in a beastwagon in metal compartments of just 2.5 by 3 metres. The only exercise these magnificent, intelligent, inquisitive creatures would get was the walk to and from the ring where they rode a bicycle and were forced to dance and play dead.

And so the evidence was gathered: Monkeys in tiny little crates and cages; a lion cub that never once left his small cage; lions living on the backs of lorries; pregnant lionesses forced to keep performing and even jump through rings of fire. These are the things that will be no more in Bolivia.

Back in London we began processing the evidence, writing the reports, preparing leaflets and posters, and editing the video. Our South America team were meeting with local campaigners, drawing together the Stop Circus Suffering campaign partner organisations for the launch of the investigation.

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Stop Circus Suffering Bolivia


By early 2007, our undercover team were still wrapping up loose ends in Colombia, working inside the circuses – it was here that we filmed the shocking abuse of Karla the chimpanzee, which horrified the whole continent.

In March and April we staged a series of back to back launches in one country after another – Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. We were desperately short of funds for the project and were grateful to the Persula Foundation who enabled us to extend our reach and whose commitment to this campaign has been vital.

Press conferences took place with our campaign partners, Asociación para la Defensa de los Derechos de los Animales (ADDA) and Educación y Bienestar Animal (EBA); our Stop Circus Suffering DVD was screened in the Department of Environment in Cochabamba and in Santa Cruz.

The shocking footage was screened on most major television channels and shown in bars and restaurants, as well as newspapers and radio.
Campaigners, individuals and campaign groups all over Bolivia joined in and everyone played a part in moving towards the ban as leaflets and information poured out. Information was distributed to the relevant authorities and prominent figures in various cities. In Cochabamba, ADI turned up the heat, lobbying and staging demonstrations outside the Mayor’s office.

The circus industry fought back, lobbying intensely in the media. Circo Abuhabda attempted to collect signatures supporting the circus. They failed.
The Bolivian public were horrified by the conditions the animals were forced to endure, as bans were secured in Santa Cruz and La Paz. A year after our launch, bans were secured in El Alto, and Cochabamba.

In May 2008, these bans faced a major test when a Las Vegas based magic show featuring big cats, The Fercos Brothers, were booked to appear in the main cities in Bolivia – all of which now had animal circus bans. ADI and local animal protection groups worked together to uphold the bans with a blizzard of letters and distribution of information to the authorities and Bolivian entrepreneur Marco Montenegro, one of the organizers of the show.

The bans were upheld and no animals featured in the shows.

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Push for national legislation


Soon after the local bans were enacted, ADI saw an opportunity and drafted a proposal to ban wild animals under a Presidential Decree on biodiversity. Despite almost a year of negotiations the proposal failed to materialise. We picked ourselves up and started again.

In August 2008, ADI started working with Congresswoman Ximena Flores, representative of the Department of Potosi, to table an ambitious bill banning ALL animals from circuses. Bill No.1143/2008-2009 was laid down in the Bolivian Congress.

For the Bill to become a law it had to pass through both Houses; the Chamber of Deputies (upper house) and the Senate (lower house). Two readings were held in each; the first in the Commission of Sustainable Development and the second in the Plenary. Therefore, the Bill had to be read, debated and voted favourably four times.
After several unsuccessful attempts, on 14 January our team in Bolivia and Congresswoman Flores got the Bill on the agenda of the Commission of Sustainable Development in the Chamber of Deputies. However, the annual recess was upon us! This meant that our team had to race against the clock to get the Bill approved in the Commission and in the Plenary of the Chamber of Deputies on the same day.

The Bill was approved in the Commission with minor amendments. Even Deputies who initially expressed concerns, voted favourably.
However, the real challenge would be in the Plenary; the mission was to ensure that the Bill was included on the agenda by getting at least seven Deputies to support it and ensure the attendance of the minimum 124 Deputies. We succeeded. The Bill was approved unanimously.
Getting legislation is a marathon, not a sprint, and it was now onto the Senate.

After the Chamber of Deputies, ADI led an intense lobby and publicity campaign with a new range of campaigns materials – a new brochure summarizing the key arguments and text of the Bill, postcards, key rings and door hangers. A new Science on Suffering (La Cienca del Sufrimiento) South America report was hand delivered to Senators at face to face meetings; campaigners wrote letters to their Senators.

The Bill was approved unanimously in committee – the Senate’s Commission of Sustainable Development. Now we had to see it through the Plenary; this was tough, with the Bill deferred for four consecutive weeks.

However, this was no time for campaign fatigue, but to dig deep and step up the pressure. A team of twenty volunteer lobbyists headed to Congress and personally invited Senators to vote.

On 14 May, the Senate’s public gallery was full of supporters wearing ADI T-shirts and holding banners as the Bill was debated and approved, with some minor amendments, including allowing one year for implementation (by comparison with other new laws, a very rapid phase out); also the words “and similar” [shows] were excluded from the prohibition.

On 20 May the amendments made by the Senate were approved unanimously in the Chamber of Deputies. The new law was then sent to President Morales for the presidential assent and Law 4040 was signed on 17 June.

This is strong and courageous piece of legislation and it was important to commend the Bolivian Government. ADI Chief Executive, Jan Creamer, presented the Bolivian Ambassador in the UK, Beatriz Souviron, with the first Toto Award for services to animal protection, which acknowledges President Morales and the Bolivian Government’s progressive stand.

ADI’s Juan Pablo Olmos also presented an ADI Award to Congresswoman Ximena Flores commending her initiative and hard work to secure the new Law.

ADI Ambassador, CSI actress Jorja Fox, wrote a letter to congratulate President Evo Morales for the new legislation, saying, “The fact that Bolivia will be the first South American country with a national ban on animal circuses, including both wild and domesticated species, is a tremendous credit to the compassion and progressive thinking of yourself and your nation.”

During the following weeks the ban was reported extensively in South America and worldwide.

ADI continues working with Congresswoman Flores; now drafting regulations to implement the law and with the national environment authority on a census of circus animals and relocation strategies. Already, six lions and a baboon have been handed over to ADI for rehoming.

The ADI field officers who began this remarkable campaign must remain anonymous, but our grateful thanks go to those who campaigned at our side: Focomade, Vida Silvestre, Biosfera, Codac, Zooprama, Animanaturalis-Bolivia, Gaia Pacha, Eba-Bolivia, Animales SOS (La Paz and Santa Cruz) amongst others.

And above all else, thanks to our individual supporters who enabled us to put field officers into the circuses in Bolivia, to make DVDs, to publish the reports, produce campaign materials, send people to lobby politicians.

You make us strong, thank you. Your donations mean that there will be no more bears living in cages on the backs of lorries in Bolivia.

This remarkable achievement now sees new legislation under consideration in Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. This could herald a seismic change for animals.

Come on UK and Europe, let’s see some action!

See also: Help Save the Bolivian Circus Animals

© Animal Defenders International 2014