Many American movie goers remember watching Steve Martin juggle three (fake) cats in the 1979 move The Jerk. While the scene was absurd, the idea of animals being involved in juggling acts certainly isn’t. In fact, there is a long history, especially in circuses, of such acts. Perhaps the first act to combine juggling with animals was performed by John Bill Ricketts, the Englishman who first brought the modern circus to America in 1792. Ricketts is said to be the first performer to juggle on horseback, standing on the horse while it trotted around the circus ring.
Equestrian juggling acts have continued to be popular ever since. Briatori was the first to juggle seven balls on horseback in the 1890’s. Other well-known equestrian jugglers of the past include Nicolai Nikitin and Massimiliano Truzzi’s father, Enrico Truzzi. In the more recent past were Stephan Gruss, who juggled up to five clubs on horseback at the age of 14 and Eugene Shvartsman, the father of Gena Shvartsman Cristiani, who juggled up to seven sticks atop a moving steed. The art of equestrian juggling continues today with artists such as David and Robert Donnert, who pass while standing on separate horses.
Horses aren’t the only animals that have been ridden while juggling. Swiss juggler Charles Knie was famous for circling the ring while juggling on top of both rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses in the 1970’s and 80’s. He never fell in all his time standing on the huge animals and juggling clubs, but injured himself after losing his footing while performing the feat atop a cow!
Other juggling acts involve animals in a much more intimate way. Gratchinow was a juggler from the USSR who used trained monkeys to do a variety of tricks. In his act, a monkey would climb onto the performer’s shoulder and catch one of the balls being juggled. The monkey would then climb up and sit on the juggler’s upheld hand, where it would be juggled overhead along with the other two balls. That portion of the act would then end with the primate catching the other two balls and running out of the circus ring. Gratchinow also trained monkeys to spin a staff, catch rings on their heads, and catch balls tossed from the performer and then drop them onto a ramp which returned them to the juggler’s pattern.
Unicycling juggler Aidyn Israfilov presents a somewhat similar act with a monkey today. Israfilov passes four balls with his very well trained monkey and then rides around with the monkey sitting on his head. The performer juggles four balls while the monkey catches the balls and drops them back into the pattern. The monkey also catches and pulls down rings tossed from Israfilov’s five ring cascade.
Andrey Markov also performs an act that seems inspired by Gratchivow, but uses trained dogs instead of monkeys. One dog brings and takes away clubs and even places clubs on the juggler’s foot for kick ups. Another dog brings him balls in a basket. A ball is placed on one end of a teeterboard by one canine while another dog steps on the other end to launch the ball at Markov to add to his juggling pattern. Like Gratchivow’s monkeys, a dog catches rings around its neck. The act ends in a very impressive display that involves the performer juggling balls and tossing them to a dog that is sitting on a raised platform. The dog catches the tossed balls in its mouth and then drops them onto an angled surface where the balls bounce back into Markov’s pattern.
Steve Mills performed a routine for many years that involved juggling while balancing a platform-topped pole on his head on which sat the family’s pet dog (as seen in last month’s Be Funnier with Scotty Meltzer: How to Steal a Joke). Simple foot juggling was done by trained bears in the Moscow Circus in the 1980’s and by trained monkeys in a Berlin cabaret act in the 1920’s.
Not all animal juggling activity is a result of training by humans. Captive bears have been observed to do simple staff twirling of their own volition. Likewise, many otters have been recorded manipulating stones in a manner very reminiscent of contact juggling.
The most famous of all “juggling” animals was Bubu, the incredible performing chimpanzee of the 1920’s and 30’s. Bubu was trained by a Danish man named Viggo Benny to do balancing tricks similar to Enrico Rastelli, the great juggling star of the era. While the chimp’s tricks were much easier than those of Rastelli, they were still quite impressive. Much to Rastelli’s dislike, Bubu would often be booked for the same shows as the juggling star and would perform just before Rastelli.