A big top pops up in a Chicago park. Following dazzling performances by acrobats and artists, it’s time for the main event. No, it’s not lions, tigers or elephants: it’s rescue dogs.
Chicago’s Midnight Circus in the Parks, which started in 2006 as a way to raise money for the city’s parks department, is the brainchild of Jeff and Julie Jenkins, married performers with a penchant for rescuing and rehabbing pit bulls. Jeff, formerly of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, particularly has a talent with the pups, working with the Humane Society of the United States and Anti Cruelty Society to go into some of Chicago’s tougher neighborhoods and help pit bull owners better understand and coexist with the animals, which often get a (undeserved) bad rap.
“I saw animals and people working together sometimes in productive ways, sometimes not so productive,” he tells PEOPLE. “After I got out of Ringling, I started to do animal welfare work, and it became glaringly obvious: pit bulls make the news for all the wrong reasons.”
Jeff first started showing family dog Lola in the original iteration of the Midnight Circus, having no idea she’d be such a hit.
“My wife and I had been doing Midnight Circus in its first iteration for a few years when we adopted her, and Lola was naturally a part of the show,” he explains “Not every performer was for everybody, but every audience member loved that dog.”
As Lola started to slow down and the family adopted another dog, Lola took a backseat as Junebug, now 10, took over, charming the audience. The family’s most recent addition, Rosie, 2, is now stepping up to do the bulk of the tricks as Junebug thinks about doggy retirement.
The Midnight Circus itself is much more than a Jenkins family hobby, though; it has the support of the city and several big-name sponsors, and to date has raised nearly $1 million, split among some of Chicago’s neediest neighborhood parks.
“We started the circus because we wanted to make a difference in our community, our city,” Jenkins says, estimating that 15,000 people turn out to see the show each year. “Chicago is a very divided city, but the public parks are the great equalizer in our community. As my wife says, everyone has access, so they should be safe, clean, well-funded, well-resourced. And that’s the idea behind the circus: bringing a world-class show to these various communities.”
Many of the circus’s 22 human performers come from Cirque du Soleil and other renowned acts; the Jenkins’ children, Max, 12, and Samantha, 10, are also an integral part of the cast.
“Our son made his debut at 3, our daughter, 6 weeks old,” Jenkins says. “They’ve truly grown up in the circus.” But the dogs, he says, “are truly the big hit.”
“We’re just so thrilled to see how it’s grown, and helped the community,” Jenkins says. “Those effects linger long after the circus tent is gone.”