LONDON, Oct. 16, 2008 -- Do you remember Russell Crowe in the hit Hollywood film "The Gladiator"?
He warily played with lions in a re-creation of one of the most famous circuses of all time: the Coliseum, where slaves died fighting wild animals, before a live audience.
Like their ancestors, Italians still like the circus. But of course, they like a more modern version where artists, acrobats and animals remain unharmed during their performances: no slaughter, no torture, no beatings.
But this is not always the case in Italy, especially behind the scenes, out of the public eye. A recent law has liberalized the organization of circuses. Now, anyone can get a license to open up a circus.
Egidio Palmiri, the president of the National Board of Circuses, has criticized the move.
In an interview with the newspaper Giornale dello Spettacolo, he warned that the law "will lead to dangerous consequences, allowing the quality of circuses to get worse," adding that," people that have nothing to do with the category have slowly penetrated Italian circuses damaging our image around the country."
"We have being asking for stricter controls and tougher punishments but no one is listening," Palmiri said.
A few circuses are reportedly getting out of control, keeping wild animals such as tigers and elephants in confined spaces, using electric bars and hooks to tame them and force them to work. This is why pro-animal campaigners such as LAV, one of the biggest Italian NGOs for the protection of animals, are trying to promote a new idea of circuses that only uses human performers.
But in some circuses, things are getting even more serious with accusations of abuses against human beings.
Police in March closed down a circus called the Marinom, where they say a terrified 19-year-old girl from Bulgaria was forced to swim among flesh-eating piranhas and her younger sister was draped in a coat of tarantulas and snakes.
This alleged horror circus occurred in Petina, a small town near Naples, in the south of Italy. Under a circus tent, on 200 plastic chairs, paying guests watched this nightly show, officials say.
During one of the performances, the girl, identified as Giusi, reportedly tried to escape from the water in fear, but witnesses say Enrico Raffaele Ingrassia, the owner of the circus, pushed her back into the water holding her head down. One spectator, alarmed by the scene, reported it to the police.
Plainclothes police officers from the Carabinieri, the Italian military police, started attending the show until they had enough evidence to arrest Ingrassia, 57; his son William, 33; and his son-in-law Gaetano Belfiore, 25. The three men have been charged with holding the Bulgarian family in slavery and breaching international human rights conventions.
Ingrassia's daughter, whose name has not been revealed by police, reportedly told the cops that the girls and their family were treated as slaves.
When Ingrassia initially employed them, the family said he promised to pay them $654 a week, but they say he gave them only $136 and said the remaining $518 had to go to the organization that arranged the sale of the family.
The family said they worked between 15 and 20 hours a day, sleeping in a lorry infested with cockroaches. The mother cooked at the site, the father moved equipment and cleaned and the daughters performed. Any attempt to escape was met with punishment, police say. The mother had been beaten for trying.
Nobile Risi, the mayor of the Carabinieri in the town of Eboli, told ABC News, "The two girls were utterly unskilled. The younger one, Olga, went through her performance with her eyes closed the whole time in fear, and Giusi had been operated on twice for a tumor on her ear. In spite of being advised by doctors in Bulgaria to avoid very cold and very warm water, she was forced to swim in water just above freezing, so that the piranhas would be kept dormant."
Sandro Ravagnani from the respected Orfei circus in Italy explained in an interview with ABC News, "Circus professionals deal every day with very dangerous performances but their professional expertise is the best protection against any risk. People in the circus nowadays have degrees and study a lot, even at a very young age, to become professional performers. The [Marinom] was an improvised circus, with improvised performers."
Olga's family said she had injuries on her stomach and ankle where the snakes had wound themselves too tightly. The family allege that the Ingrassias refused to take her to the doctor.
The family were rescued but many are wondering whether dodgy and violent circuses will continue to exist in Italy, until the laws governing circuses are tightened.