In its time, few things offered more entertainment in one place than the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Within three different rings, you could marvel at sword swallowers, trapeze artists, contortionists and strongmen. In addition to human entertainers, the circus showed off animal acts, enlisting animals with special talents.

In fact, the circus employed a menagerie that included trained cats, goats and sheep to monkeys, bears, lions, tigers, wolves, horses, elephants — even xylophone-playing pigs. By comparison, dogs jumping through hoops or riding horses bareback probably didn’t seem all that unusual.

Eventually, though, people began to question the ethics of animal acts (not to mention the so-called “freak shows”) and the company folded up its tents permanently in 2017.

A Better Kind of Circus

But Jeff Jenkins and Julie Jenkins felt they could put a positive spin on the circus concept, without exploiting people or animals, and founded Midnight Circus in the Parks in Chicago in 2007.

The group of artists and performers work to advance good in three ways:

  • Animal advocacy — Two rescued pit bulls, who have become Jeff and Julie’s beloved family pets, perform to help dispel negative stereotypes about pit bulls.
  • Support for Chicago parks — 100 percent of the proceeds go to the city parks, with almost $1 million raised to date.
  • Community involvement — Events are affordable, accessible and involve community leaders.

Junebug and Rosie Rae: Canine Stars

Some people have misconceptions about pit bulls, which is why the breed tends to fill Chicago shelters in greater number than other breeds. In fact, Jeff found Rosie Rae at just such a shelter. An exuberant pit bull with no socialization or training, Rosie also had irresistibly sweet eyes. Jeff didn’t hesitate to make her a part of the family.

While teaching at an anti-dogfighting event, Jeff first encountered Junebug, a pit bull that showed all the signs of mistreatment. He convinced her owner to relinquish the dog to him, then made her part of the family, too.

With patience and kindness, Jeff socialized and trained the dogs so they learned to trust people and know the love of a family. Now, the dogs are crowd favorites under the big top, zigzagging through obstacle courses and playing keep-away with Jeff’s hat. In some instances, the dogs serve as a springboard for talking about how to take better care of rescue dogs.

Clowns in Training

Another place you can find dogs jumping through hoops — all in the name of fun and positive-reward training — is at the Canine Circus School in Oakland, California.

This obedience school combines rigorous training with the fun of choreographed routines so dogs — and their owners — can bring out the performers inside of them.

Even with the negative baggage that circuses carry, today’s pet-oriented circuses are fun, creative environments that turn family entertainment into, well, one of the greatest shows on earth.