Last week, Chicago-based Midnight Circus in the Park took to the stage to raise $20,000 for hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. The sold-out crowd cheered on the group’s crew of acrobats, aerialists, clowns, and dogs.
Yes, the crew features two pit bull performers, Junebug and Rosie Rae, but they weren’t just there for entertainment purposes. They also serve as goodwill ambassadors for the much-maligned breed, which constantly struggles to live down the bad rap it’s gained over the years.
The two pups are following in the pawprints of their predecessor, a pit bull rescue named Lola (pictured below) who performed with the circus until 2013.
Midnight Circus’s co-director and ringmaster, Jeff Jenkins, is an avid pit bull advocate and previously worked as a clown with Ringling Brothers. That organization has come under fire from animal-rights advocates for allegedly mistreating animals.
“Whether you work in a circus or in animal welfare, both are conduits to community, reaching people to inspire and educate,” said Jeff, whose wife and two children also perform with the circus.
“Animals are an important way to reach out to those with different opinions, different cultures. We reach out to folks who don’t have resources and opportunities. If you help the people, you help the dogs.”
In fact, Jeff is the head trainer in the American Humane Society’s “End Dogfighting” campaign, and it was during one of those classes that he first met Junebug. He could tell the young boy who brought her to the class adored her, but she was clearly being mistreated.
So he made a deal with the boy, offering him a revered position as a class assistant in exchange for Junebug.
After rescuing Rosie Rae from a local shelter, he began training the pair to be performers and to show children and adults alike that, with enough love and patience, pit bulls can be just as friendly, obedient, and embarrassingly affectionate as any other breed.
Of course, any time you’re working with animals, you have to be prepared for the unexpected and learn to just roll with the punches.
During the shows, the performers are squeezed into a relatively small space and “the audience is right there, just six inches away. When a kid in the front row is chomping on popcorn and spills some in the ring, on more than one occasion, my dog jumped through the hoop and got a piece of popcorn!”
Since Midnight Circus launched a little more than a decade ago, the crew’s provided hundreds of hours of entertainment to its guests, as well as raised nearly $1 million for a variety of local causes, with most of the funding going toward improving Chicago-area parks.
And best of all, they’re showing people the true, sweet nature of two pit bulls who likely never would’ve had the opportunity to shine otherwise.