What It's Like To Run Away and Join the Circus


Everyone jokes around about it, few actually do it. I happen to be one of those few.

So there I was... I had graduated from a specialized animal school in southern California, trying to make it as an animal trainer for film. I was living in a guest house at a ranch out in the middle of the desert and as most things in Hollywood go, it was all about timing, who you know, and being in the right place at the right time. In my unfortunate case I had none of these things lining up for me. A friend of mine who I had gone through the animal program with had recently joined Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. He was the manager of the barnyard and small exotic animals and when I told him about my struggles of making it in Hollywood, he suggested I join him on the road and have a once in a lifetime experience. Coincidently I was about to not have a place to live, wasn't really making any real money, and was unsure about which direction to go with my career, so, I went. I caught the next plane to Orlando, FL in time to catch the show going into their winter quarters to prep and rehearse for a brand new tour. This was the first time I felt the rush of going completely into the unknown, not really knowing what to expect, or what I was about to be in for. 

When I arrived someone picked me up from the airport and took me to the Fairgrounds where I saw the sprawling tents, animals, all the expected props, and parade floats being tinkered with and perfected for the upcoming shows. It was like a scene out of a movie! I was completely overwhelmed. I was introduced to my department briefly before they whisked me away to get me set up in my living quarters on the train parked nearby. What most people don't realize is Ringling Brothers had three touring groups. One small show that only utilized trucks and trailers called the Gold Unit and two larger shows, the Red Unit and the Blue Unit that both travelled by train. These trains were two of the largest privately owned trains in the world each stretching to approximately a mile and a half long. They housed the majority of the cast and crew for the show as well as serving as a transport system for most of the equipment, animals and even had a dedicated restaurant car for it's occupants. The train was set up like a class system. On one end of the train were the smallest rooms dedicated to the lowest paid and newly hired employees. The further up the train you progressed, the bigger the rooms got and usually the higher positions their tenants held. So I was sent to the very first train car, which held 12 rooms, each approximately 6.5'L x 4'W (about half the size of a jail cell.) There was a bathroom in the middle of the train car with one toilet and one shower that was to be shared with everyone on that particular car. In my case it was 11 burly men that looked like they were straight off of the streets of New York and used motor oil for sunscreen. 

The door to my future home was opened and then immediately shut in my face. "I'm so sorry!" the train attendant in charge of housing exclaimed. In a glimpse I saw sprawling CD's, unmentionable items, dirty clothes and stale trash littered throughout the tiny space. It smelled of feet and cigarette smoke and I began to panic. What had I signed up for? There was no going back now, and I was horrified. She assured me my room would be spotless by the next day and put me in a temporary room that was only marginally better. The walls were stained yellow, and each room had one window didn't open for emergency exits only. To get any air you had to leave your front door open which I was happy to do to combat my immediate claustrophobia. To compound the mounting problems I was accruing, keeping my door open meant everyone had a clear path to get a sneak peak at the newest edition to Ringling's close yet twisted family. The first man to 'stop by and introduce himself' was named Frank. He was large statured and took up the entire frame of the door. He was completely bald and wore a wide grin exposing is only 3 teeth. He had brought a peace offering. A large plate of food, that looked at least a day old and like it was possibly from a prison kitchen with the grease sloshing around the meat and the smell of margarine permeating through the plastic wrapping. I thanked him and took it, unsure of how to dispose of it as he over enthusiastically assured me if I needed ANYTHING, he would be more than happy to help. A barrage of other people came by, mostly dodgy looking men, to assess the situation that was my arrival. When my friend that had originally asked me to come work with him finally got off of work and showed up at my door he laughed when I explained the events of the day. He shrugged and told me if I wanted an experience I had come to the right place. That it probably seemed overwhelming, but it wasn't so bad and most of the people meant well, and it was all going to be alright.

Later that evening one of the girls that I was going to be working with came by and explained that on the particular train car I was living on, cockroaches were a problem. She went on to tell me very few people had actually felt them crawling over their face at night, but  mostly you just saw them scurrying to the corners. A lot of people would up bait traps for them, and I was encouraged to get some as well as some heavy duty cleaning supplies for my room, because she knew the guy that had lived there previously and suggested I not ask too many questions about events that took place there. Horrified I went to bed. I survived the night without incident but would be plagued by the cockroach issues for almost a full year following until I was able to get promoted into a better train car to live in. The other residents in my car worked the floor crew, and seem less than concerned about the bugs than their own personal hygiene. I found that they would often drink and sometimes brawl into the late hours of the night and I would occasionally need to open my door and yell out "I don't care if you guys kill each other but take it outside! I have to get up in two hours!" To which I would often get the reply, "Sorry Andrea, will do" and they would.

I tell everyone that asks, working for the circus was the most difficult thing I have ever done both mentally and physically. The days were long. We would often work 14-18 hour days and if you included driving from city to city it would mean also working 7 days a week. Setting up our tent (which was the largest of four at approximately 130' x 80') took anywhere from 8-18 hours depending on the weather and how many people were helping us. Because the show was indoors, we would follow the bad weather to encourage people to come see the show inside. This meant setting up and tearing down everything in freezing cold, hail, lightning and 100+ degree weather. We were in a different city each week with the exceptions of the major cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Every weekend we would put on three shows a day and between shows begin tearing down and packing away all of our equipment to start the process all over again. It was exhausting work for very little pay. With that being said, I have seen most of this beautiful country, met some amazing people, and have have experiences that will last a lifetime.

As far as the treatment of the animals went, I tell everyone the same thing. I can only speak for what I saw during the time that I was there. From my own experience, the animals were treated exceptionally well by people that cared tremendously for their safety and wellbeing. These caretakers sacrifice a lot of their own lives to make sure the animals got only the best treatment and real life long relationships were forged and respected by everyone involved in their care. On top of all of that, the worst abuse I have ever seen to date was from the activists themselves that protested our arrivals and threatened our lives and souls daily. I have been cussed at, spit on, shoved, had rocks and eggs thrown at me, and had my life threatened by protesters. I try to explain to people that have asked about it that I was never THAT upset with them, because I understood that they were doing what they felt was best for the animals wellbeing, albeit being misguided and uneducated. Unfortunately for most of these activist groups, their facts are often falsified and flat out untrue. Not enough research by their followers goes into fact checking or questioning the ethics and values of the organizations they seem to blindly follow.

I learned a lot about myself on the road during my years with the circus. I was pushed to my limit, and came out the other side. I made lifelong friends that I still keep in touch with today. I learned about perseverance, hard work, and leadership and I have more stories than I know what to do with. With the show recently getting shut down and cancelled, I must say that I am not only proud but honored to have had the privilege to be a part of such an iconic piece of American history. Nothing will ever be like working for the circus.

For more stories, tips and tricks on training or if you have any questions please visit our website at www.dogtrainingredefined.com or email Andrea at Andrea@theanimaldept.com

Andrea Robinson