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You won't find elephants or lions entertaining crowds who come to see this Chicago circus — especially since Illinois is the first state to enact a statewide ban on elephant performances.
Rather, a pair of pit bulls who came from humble beginnings are stars of the show. Junebug and Rosie Rae entertain thousands of Chicagoans who come to see Midnight Circus in the Parks, and help change minds about blocky-headed dogs while they're doing it.
At the same time these good dogs also help raise money to support local parks, and now, relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
"We try to deliver a lot under the guise of bringing a circus to the park," Midnight Circus in the Parks co-founder Jeff Jenkins told TODAY.
Midnight Circus was founded in the mid-1990s, a collaboration between Jenkins, a former Ringling Brothers clown and pit bull advocate, with his wife, performer Julie Jenkins.
Their adopted pit bull Lola quickly became part of the program.
"She loved performing. She was very serious," 49-year-old Jeff Jenkins told TODAY. "She took it as her job."
The show morphed into Midnight Circus in the Parks about a decade ago. Performed largely to local crowds in parks across Chicago, it's become a fundraiser for Chicago's city parks — according to People, the show's raised nearly $1 million so far.
Under this iteration, Midnight Circus brings together acrobats, aerialists, clowns and, of course, some very talented pit bulls.
(The couple's two children, 12-year-old Max and Samantha, 10, are also featured performers. The New York Times profiled Max six years ago, noting that outside of being a clown, his interests included soccer, candy and SpongeBob SquarePants.)
Lola died in 2013. Her successors are 11-year-old Junebug and Rosie Rae, who's 2.
Jenkins told The Bark magazine that Junebug had previously belonged to another Chicago family. A young boy brought her to an anti-dogfighting class Jenkins was teaching; Jenkins could see the boy loved Junebug, but that someone was also mistreating her. Jenkins offered to adopt Junebug in exchange for the boy becoming his class assistant.
Rosie Rae came from Chicago's municipal shelter. As it's put on the Midnight Circus website, "She was loud, wild, and showed all the signs of a puppy who had not been socialized, trained and probably subjected to moderate abuse. She also had huge sweet eyes and that intangible quality that says 'I’m your next family member.'"
If neither dog had the easiest of lives before joining the circus, here's what they get up to now during their charming performances, per the Chicago Tribune:
"The routine usually goes something like this: Jenkins brings out Junebug, who refuses to listen. She steals his hat and the hoops she’s supposed to be jumping through, while Jenkins chases her around. Once he and Junebug finish with the comedy, Jenkins brings out Rosie Rae, who does what her partner wouldn’t, ripping through the obstacles at 'lightning speeds,' Jenkins said."
Despite the dogs' star power, neither was adopted primarily because of any particular talent for entertaining an audience. First and foremost, Jenkins said, they are "beloved family pets."
Indeed, a big part of what Jenkins hopes folks will get out of Junebug and Rosie's performance is to help dislodge harmful and untrue stereotypes about pit bulls, and the people who love them.
"Every dog is an individual," Jenkins said.
Now they're all delivering some help to Puerto Rico as well.
A special benefit performance is scheduled for this Thursday in Chicago. Jenkins says the $25 tickets sold out in one day, which spells some $15,000 that will go to the American Red Cross's Hurricane Maria relief efforts. He expects that figure to go up once donations and concessions are added in.
It's all part and parcel of the Midnight Circus mission — to do good for the community, for the world and for the dogs. "And, of course," said Jenkins, "to entertain."