09/30/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
SMOKEY THE MULE, THE DIMINUTIVE offspring of a Shetland pony and a Sicilian donkey, scrambles up a ramp to a narrow platform 18 feet above a six-foot-deep tank of water. She hesitates, snorts, paws the floor. The crowd of 1,000 at the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque is all agog. Showing exquisite timing, Smokey keeps them waiting another minute. Then she takes the plunge, earning a carrot and a roar of approval.
Smokey, along with two other mules, Dipsy and Kit, is part of an act called The World's Only High-Diving Mules, which tours the country five months each year, performing up to 28 times a week at fairs and rodeos. The mules and their owners, Tim and Patty Rivers of Citra, Fla., earned about $17,500 for their 17-day stint in New Mexico. But it's not as easy as it used to be, says Tim, 42, a former rodeo bareback rider who trains each mule for two years at his ranch in Florida. In the last few years, the troupe has been pursued by a posse of angry activists crying cruelty.
While the Riverses have been taken to court at least seven times, they have never been barred from performing. But in Albuquerque they encountered something new: Toni Conti, owner of a wicker shop, began a 17-day hunger strike to protest the act. "Mules are not dolphins or seals," she says. "I believe they are suffering physical discomfort and stress. It sets a very bad example. I don't know how many children are going to climb a ladder and throw their pets into the kiddie pool."
The battle to keep the fair mule-free began even before its opening on Sept. 6, when Sangré de Cristo Animal Protection Inc., an animal-rights group, sued in state court to block their appearance. "It's just a sleazy carny act," says Lisa Jennings, president of the 1,000-member organization. "Here we are, approaching the 21st century, and we're being entertained by diving mules."
Meanwhile, Conti, 52, who belongs to no animal-welfare group, read that the act was coming to town. "I am not a fanatic," she says, "but I stayed up all night wondering what I could do to help these mules." Two days before the fair opened, Conti called the Albuquerque Journal and announced that she would fast until the mules left the state. She hired a painter to print: SAY NO TO THE DIVING MULES, across her storefront window, and she embarked on her fast—accepting only V-8, Dr. Pepper, water, vitamins and soy milk.
On Sept. 13 the court refused to prevent the nudes from performing. Gov. Bruce King had already declined to intervene—even after veterinarian Ray Powell Jr., his special assistant for environmental affairs, called the act "totally insensitive."
While news of the controversy was drawing ever larger crowds to the fair, Conti, in her 10th day of fasting, was feeling weak but vowed to endure. As for Tim Rivers—owner of a red Ford pickup sporting a bumper sticker reading, SAVE A PIG. ROAST AN ACTIVIST—he insists that his animals are treated humanely and dive because they want to. "The only motivation to the animal is food," says Tim, whose father, Jonny, started the act in 1957. "This has to be one of the safest things done with animals."
In Albuquerque the spectacle drew mixed reviews from locals. "It's cruel," said 13-year-old Che Gabaldon. "When they jump, they belly flop, and it looks like they hurt." Larry Sanchez agreed. "No mule in his right mind would do that," he declared. But Arnie Garick, who came to the fair because of the uproar, thought otherwise. "If the water's deep enough, it's okay," he said.
After Albuquerque the Riverses take their mules to Lumberton, N.C., for another opening, another show—and probably another protest.
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Albuquerque