Successful dog trainers know that a little showmanship engages students, but Jeff Jenkins may be the only one whose resumé boasts being a Ringling Brothers clown. This experience no doubt explains his ability to effortlessly turn the occasional training fail into an entertaining how-to that brings together people of all ages and backgrounds to laugh and learn.
When he isn’t teaching free Pit Bull training classes in underprivileged Chicago neighborhoods, Jenkins inspires audiences as co-founder and ringmaster of Midnight Circus in the Parks, whose mission is to create community, raise funds and rebuild parks. In 2016, it celebrated 10 years of “bringing circus to the people.”
Two of its biggest stars are Jenkins’ own rescue Pit Bulls, Junebug and Rosie Rae. They literally jump through hoops, entertaining and educating Chicago communities under the “Little Big Top.” Together with his wife, MC co-founder and performer Julie Greenberg, Jenkins and a talented cast that also includes aerialists, contortionists, clowns and musicians have raised more than $850,000 for local park improvements.
“At every show, something surprises me,” says Jenkins. “The challenging thing about being in the tent is that 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!”
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Jenkins first met Junebug when he was teaching obedience classes as part of HSUS’s “End Dogfighting” campaign. A young boy brought his Pit Bull puppy to class in Englewood, a struggling neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. It was clear that despite the boy’s love for her, she was not being well treated. Jenkins offered to provide the dog with a home in exchange for the boy becoming his class training assistant.
When Midnight Circus performed in Englewood for the first time in 2014, it was an extraordinary homecoming for the little tan-and-white Bully. She showed Englewood residents that their dogs could be well trained and well socialized like her. Jenkins observed that if kids see a polite dog in person at their local park, it makes a stronger impression than seeing one on TV or YouTube.
The dogs perform for crowds of all sizes, some as large as 20,000 during Chicago Bulls half-time shows. One would assume that the dogs would be most distracted by the huge crowds, but Jenkins says that smaller groups found in school classrooms, youth correctional facilities and the Midnight Circus prove more challenging.
On one occasion, a fellow dog trainer and family friend proved to be the distraction to Lola, their first circus dog. “We started the routine when I see her start to air scent, ‘I know that smell, that’s Jim!’ Lola scans the audience, locks in, then jumps over three rows of people to get in his lap! He catches her, she’s licking him and licking him, and the audience is totally losing it!”
Jenkins also recalls another more shocking performance incident, one that involved a large group of children. They were having a great time … until the Pit Bulls came out. “Thirty kids were whooping and hollering, and then literally ran out of the tent.” He says it’s not unusual for a few children to be scared; the dogs they know are rarely trained or socialized. But he had never seen so many frightened children. “It was a teaching moment. I repeated the tricks, took my time without any pressure. After the show, I found some of those kids, told them, ‘She’s really friendly, but she’ll slobber when you give her a treat.’ That made them laugh.”
The humor in the dogs’ routine is powerfully persuasive for people who negatively stereotype Pit Bulls. Jenkins will pretend to chase a naughty dog as she runs along the perimeter of the ring. A favorite trick involves the dog jumping through increasingly smaller hoops, which she somehow squeezes through every time. He also gets the crowd excited when they jump rope together.
Unlike Junebug, Rosie Rae, whom Jenkins and his family adopted from Chicago Animal Care and Control, wasn’t always so keen on trick training. (They had visited the facility just to “take a look,” Jenkins says.)
“One hula hoop was okay. I brought the rope out, started jumping and Rosie took off. I had my work cut out for me. I had to go really slow. I knew if I pushed too hard, she’d do it in training, but not at a show. The key is having fun, having the time of their life.”
After working for Ringling Brothers for many years, Jenkins’ jump to HSUS—which had filed repeated lawsuits against the company—caused some conflict among a few members of his big-top circus family. Jenkins, however, found he was straddling two worlds that weren’t as far apart in their goals as each might think.
“Whether you work in a circus or in animal welfare,” he reflects, “both are conduits to community, reaching people to inspire and educate. 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.”
The Midnight Circus will be performing in various Chicago-area parks through mid-October. See the schedule and buy tickets online.