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Pit Bulls Take Center Stage in Chicago’s Midnight Circus

Jeff Jenkins and Rosie Rae performing in Midnight Circus.

Jeff Jenkins and Rosie Rae performing in Midnight Circus.

On a warm summer evening at McKinley Park on Chicago’s southwest side, hundreds of people have gathered for an amazing event. Acrobats, aerialists, dancers, and daring tightrope walkers have taken the stage under a big tent, delighting the crowd with their performances. At the end, a final surprise: two Pit Bull-type dogs emerge, jumping through hoops, balancing on their hind legs, and invoking cheers that reverberate around the ring. The spectacle—a long-running tradition in Chicago’s parks—is called Midnight Circus.

Midnight Circus was co-founded by Chicago resident Jeff Jenkins and his wife, Julie. “It was a long held dream of mine to run away and go join the circus, and I didn’t let it go,” Jenkins says. The dream took him into the circus life, where he eventually ended up as an instructor at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey College. It wasn’t until meeting Julie, who had a background in classical theater and dance, that interests collided to create what is now a staple of Chicago summer events.

At the heart of the circus is a mission to do good by the community. The first Midnight Circus in the park—which followed 15 years of indoor performances at the National Pastime Theater—was an effort by the Jenkins to help raise money to rebuild the playground at Welles Park in their home neighborhood of Lincoln Square. That first weekend of shows raised more than $20,000 for the playground, and sparked a relationship between spectacle and fundraising that has persisted for more than a decade.

Today, Midnight Circus has grown from a weekend of shows in the open air to a yearly city-wide tour compromised of nearly 40 performances at nine different city parks. It has raised almost one million dollars for Chicago communities so far. The thousands of audience members who have gathered beneath the Midnight Circus tent over the years have come for a multitude of reasons: entertainment, amazement, supporting a good cause. For many, though, there’s one specific act they’ve shown up to witness: the unbelievable performing dogs.

A chance to shine

Junebug, 11, and Rosie Rae, 3, are Pit Bull-type dogs and two of the biggest stars of Midnight Circus. They’re also the Jenkins family pets.

“My dogs have huge lives—they’re very lucky,” Jenkins says. “They have wonderful jobs that really allow them to express who they are and do what they love to do.”

Their jobs are more commonly (and, often, problematically) those of traditional circus animals like elephants and tigers. But watch Junebug and Rosie perform and you’ll see two incredible animals who truly enjoy their role.

The dogs aren’t just there to amaze. In addition to performing in the show, Junebug and Rosie further an additional mission of Midnight Circus: to open peoples’ minds about who “bully breed” type dogs are and what they’re capable of.

Pit Bull-type dogs are unfortunate mainstays of Chicago’s shelter system and one of the most misunderstood breeds around. It’s these pre-conceived notions about the breed (itself a generic term—there’s no actual “Pit Bull” breed) that make Junebug and Rosie’s presence in the circus so remarkable.

“Most people don’t expect a dog like that to be able to be in an entertainment environment like a circus,” Jenkins says. It’s a magical moment, he adds, when the audience sees the dogs burst out into the circus ring and start doing incredible tricks. “After the show, all the kids flood into the ring and jump on top of them and the dogs are just licking the kids and playing, and all of the sudden people think, wait a minute, and their pre-conceived notion of what a Pit Bull is starts to change.”

For Jenkins, it’s what it’s all about.

“I’m using my dogs to reach out to people,” he says. “To show a real positive relationship with a breed of dogs who tend to be thought of in a particular way that isn’t always productive and certainly isn’t always true.”

The audience may not be coming to Midnight Circus for a lesson in bully breed advocacy, but it’s a message they won’t be able to avoid or forget.

Journeys to the ring

The original dog on the Midnight Circus stage was the Jenkins’ first Pit Bull-type rescue, Lola.

“She was a reactive, high-drive dog,” Jenkins recalls. “She really needed a job, and thankfully I found a way to provide her with that job, which happened to be obedience and agility and then performing in our circus.”

Midnight Circus’s canine performers are pets first, performers second. Junebug and Rosie became part of the show not because of their excellent agility and tricks, but because they needed a place to learn and grow.

Jenkins is a long-time member of Chicago’s animal welfare community, using his abilities as a dog trainer and animal advocate to spread the word about responsible dog guardianship through organizations like The Anti- Cruelty Society and the Humane Society of the United States. He’s challenged traditional mindsets about dogs—and Pit Bull-type dogs in particular—not just in the circus ring but in schools and youth correctional facilities, and at numerous community events.

It was in one such setting—a free weekly class he was teaching as part of an End Dogfighting campaign in Englewood— that Junebug came into his life.

“There was a young boy who would bring her to class. The first week she looked a little rough around the edges—she was really thin, her nails were really long, it looked like she’d been in a few mix-ups,” he says. “Each week she got aggressively thinner and she would show up with a few more scars.”

The boy finally admitted to Jenkins that his older brother was starting to “bump” her—the slang term for teaching a dog to fight. Jenkins offered him an alternative: let him take Junebug and in return the boy could become a paid assistant in the class, handing out treats, setting up equipment, and eventually getting himself into a position where he could get another dog and raise her in a safe environment.

“He leapt at the opportunity,” Jenkins says. Junebug came home with him that night, and she never left.

Rosie Rae became part of the family under different circumstances. Some time after losing Lola, the Jenkins were looking for another dog to adopt— but it couldn’t be just any dog.

“I’m a little bit particular. I tried to find a dog who first of all needed to be adopted, but then also a dog who I knew would be capable of the type of work that I do so they could help be a messenger and build those bridges.”

Jenkins and his kids went to Chicago Animal Care and Control, a place Jenkins had been volunteering at for some time, in search of their perfect new family pet. And there was Rosie, “spinning in circles and hooping and hollering and growling a bit—just full of fire,” Jenkins says.

“She was a work in progress, let me tell you. She was a very different dog than Lola or Junebug in terms of training, especially doing the stuff I aspire to do with them at youth correctional facilities and public schools, or in the circus or performing at Bulls games.” It took a lot of patience to not only train Rosie to do her tricks but to have her comfortable performing her tricks in crowds.

Now, he says, Rosie is in a great place. This past May she performed solo at The Anti-Cruelty Society’s annual Bark in the Park event, doing her tricks in a smallgrassy area surrounded by other dogs—a stressful environment for even the best-behaved animals. “She handled it so well; she exceed my expectations,” Jenkin says. “I was really impressed with her.”

Excitement and inspiration

This year, Midnight Circus will celebrate a dozen years of performing in the parks. The shows start at the end of August and run through October. And of course, Junebug and Rosie will be there in all their big-smiled, blockheaded glory.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all in the circus, Jenkins says, the dogs are going to come out and surprise you. They might even teach you something.

“People tend to be fiercely loyal

to our program once they’ve seen one show,” Jenkins says. “I’ve had people who’ve come back every year, and they start getting involved in their park or maybe in some animal welfare work because we’ve inspired them.”

The dream, he adds, is to keep growing. “We want to continue to have a positive impact across Chicago, particularly in communities that need more positivity. We firmly believe that we’re better and stronger as a city when we all work together, so we want to keep doing that. We just happen to do it with a circus. There are worse ways to make a living, right?”

Want to check out Junebug and Rosie in action?

Here’s where to find Midnight Circus this summer.

Garfield Park: August 25 to August 26
McKinley Park: August 31 to September 2
Hamilton Park: September 8 to September 9
Holstein Park: September 14 to September 16
Lake Shore Park: September 21 to September 23
Ridge Park: September 29 to September 30
Kosciuszko Park: October 6 to October 7
Oriole Park: October 12 to October 14
Welles Park: October 19 to October 21

For tickets and more information, visit MidnightCircus.net.

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