How a Flea Circus Works


A harnessed flea pulling a miniature chariot. He only accepts fares from beads, apparently.
A harnessed flea pulling a miniature chariot. He only accepts fares from beads, apparently.
© Frank Leonhardt/dpa/Corbis

Fleas are a curse on warm-blooded creatures. The parasitic life suckers feast upon the veins of all things furry and feathered. With their piercing mouths and ravenous appetites, fleas hop around, latching onto mammals of all kinds and spreading misery in their wake. But fleas have at least one redeeming quality — they also make extraordinary circus performers.

That's right. The phrase "flea circus" isn't just a euphemism for a cheap, dilapidated movie theater. Flea circuses with live, performing fleas actually do exist, although their numbers (like the fleas themselves) are in steep decline. There are a probably a whole lot of reasons for this state of affairs in the flea circus industry, but suffice it to say that as humans have improved their hygiene and residential cleanliness over the past couple of centuries, they've become a bit more squeamish about hanging out with fleas voluntarily.

Let us behold the squalid lifecycle of the humble flea. Fleas love dogs (which is why flea collar sales are so phenomenal), but they'll happily treat themselves to human blood, too. They like dirty, damp environments, which are best for raising their young. After fleas gorge themselves on your vital fluid, the evidence of their feast remains in raised, red bite marks that are often itchy and may last for several weeks.

Fleas jump from host to host and they can transmit plague, typhus, tungiasis, tapeworms and more. To rid yourself of fleas, you'll probably use a variety of medicated shampoos to kill them and wash them away. To evict a truly stubborn pack of fleas, you could potentially wind up shaving off your hair.

Under perfect conditions and with regular meals of blood, Rambo-strength fleas can live more than a year, but most fleas don't make it past three months. And a tiny, select few use their short time to become famous.

Properly handled fleas are fantastic public performers, well-suited to life under the big top — or, more accurately, little top. All it takes is a little patience, human ingenuity and a few fleas with better-than-average strength and speed.

An Itchy Backstory

Destined for stardom?
Destined for stardom?
©cosmin/iStock/Thinkstock

Fleas come in about 2,000 varieties. They're wingless and parasitic, using piercing mouthparts to slurp the blood of their hosts. The ones used for circuses have flat, reddish brown bodies that are about 2.5 millimeters (less than a hundredth of an inch) long and have elongated hind legs that enable jumping capabilities of fantastic proportions. Their vertical leap may top 7 inches (17.8 centimeters), and their long jump can exceed 12 inches (30 centimeters), which is many, many times the insect's body length. Those characteristics are what make fleas perfect for tiny circus shows.

In the 1570s, a London blacksmith became one of the first people to enslave a flea to do his bidding. The purpose of his project was to show off his craftsmanship, in which he created a tiny gold chain that he subsequently affixed to a flea, sort of like the world's smallest dog collar. The smithy, named Mark Scalliot, gained fame from his public relations feat and inspired others to take up the flea-powered phenomenon. Other craftsmen, such as watchmakers, utilized similar flea gimmicks to tout their work and artistry.

In the 1820s, a paradigm shift of sorts came to flea acts, thanks in part to Louis Bertolotto, an Italian impresario living in London who decided fleas were his itchy ticket to fortune and glory. He proclaimed his new act as an "extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas," in which the bugs were the stars of the show instead of the products.

Bertolotto's show was part action, part humor and part social commentary. His fleas pulled a tiny carriage. They danced to an orchestra featuring tiny instruments, which the fleas supposedly played with audible enthusiasm. They brought to life a recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, riding on golden saddles and wielding swords against their foes. The fleas even donned full battle regalia for their rounds of warfare.

It would be difficult to overstate Bertolotto's fame and popularity. He wasn't an obscure sideshow freak. He was a rock star performer of the first rate, like Elvis or Johnny Cash. His shows were so successful that he took them all over the world and to North America, which spawned countless imitators. So, flea circuses kept spreading, sort of like the bugs themselves.

Fleas Cross the Seas

Advertisement for a flea circus circa 1900
Advertisement for a flea circus circa 1900
© Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the early 1900s, American William Heckler was one of the first imitators to find real success as a flea master. He called his fleas "skilled professionals" as they juggled, raced and boxed on his little stage. He named his favorite fleas and said that they responded to voice commands. He also told a reporter that in one good day of performances his little circus could bring in more than $250 in admittance fees, which these days would be well over $3,000.

Other copycats took their acts on the road, too, in the circuses and medicine road shows that traveled America. Over time, flea circuses became inextricably linked to carnival sideshows and county fairs, along with the likes of bearded ladies, human unicorns and camel girls. Some people were enthralled with dancing fleas. A lot of other people scoffed. But no matter their opinions, flea circuses became the stuff of sideshow legend.

Trainers invented more and more tricks for their fleas to perform. One flea might do high dives. Another appeared to read books. And one flea might even perform his own magic show routine.

The popularity of flea circuses has waxed and waned over the decades. Depending on where you live, you may be able to find modern-day flea circuses at a nearby fair or carnival. For example, one of the most famous and long-running flea circuses appears at an annual Oktoberfest celebration in Germany.

Fleas as Art Form

Don’t worry, folks! As this sign from a 1950s flea circus assures, the insects are harnessed and will not escape onto you.
Don’t worry, folks! As this sign from a 1950s flea circus assures, the insects are harnessed and will not escape onto you.
© Sherman/Three Lions/Getty Images

Like all other living creatures, fleas vary in behavior. Some jump higher and run faster than others. Out of 10 fleas, perhaps only one is mobile and athletic enough for circus tricks and fame. So flea trainers watch their fleas to determine which ones are showing off their Michael Jordan moves. These ultra-active fleas will become the core of the next show.

Fleas aren't exactly doglike. You can't train them to sit or speak. So their "trainers" must find other ways to get their bugs to cooperate.

When they want to harness a flea, trainers often use thin gold wire or thread so thin it's nearly microscopic. Then the trainers can hitch their fleas to a variety of contraptions, one of the most common being little wagons or carriages that the flea tugs across the stage.

Glue, too, is a very useful tool for affixing harnesses to tiny bugs. Mock up a tiny fiddle or flute and then glue it to the forelegs of a flea and it will frantically "play" it for an audience's amusement. Vibrate the stage just a little and a gaggle of fleas would turn into a troupe of excited dancers.

Juggling is another easy trick. Position a yoked flea on its back, settle a smidgen of lint on its legs and it will flip it round and round. Suspend a piece of string between two little poles and the harnessed flea will do a bit of tightrope walking.

Flea trainers are notoriously close-mouthed when it comes to the finer points of their trade. Give away too many secrets of their craft, they say, and the magic disappears.

Scratching Out a Living

Showman Adam Gertsacov of the Acme Flea Circus showing off the incredible strength of his trained fleas in 2002
Showman Adam Gertsacov of the Acme Flea Circus showing off the incredible strength of his trained fleas in 2002
© Justine Ellement/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

If you're put off by the idea of the fleas being harnessed or glued to their props, take heart: It's questionable as to how many contemporary flea circuses actually employ living fleas. After all, fleas are rather difficult to see without some sort of magnification, especially from more than a few feet away. It would be extremely easy to construct a tiny circus filled with props of every kind and pretend that fleas are interacting with those props, when in fact the fleas are not there at all.

That's exactly what some performers do, using electronics, magnets and other tools that stand in for actual fleas. The power of suggestion is mighty. Carnival types know and understand this. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that many flea trainers have backgrounds in theater and magic. They have a knack for engaging and distracting their audiences with a deft sleight of hand.

Whether the fleas are real or not, one thing's for sure — it's getting harder and harder to find fleas suitable for the circus. Improved human hygiene and effective pesticides mean that household fleas are a rarity in first-world countries. They're so difficult to find that some trainers actually order them from overseas, praying that their little bloodsuckers survive the journey.

For circuses that do feature real, live fleas, there's still the matter of keeping them alive for as long as possible. And to survive, fleas require blood. So, some trainers roll up their sleeves and let their fleas have a go. It's typically the easiest and most convenient way for their charges to get a quick meal.

In spite of the give-and-take relationship of the flea circus, it's still easy to see how the fleas wind up with a raw deal. They're harnessed or even glued for the duration of their lives and expected to perform on command until they die. Regardless, there aren't any regulation banning flea circuses. The show will go on so long as the romantic nostalgia for sideshows lives in the hearts of quirky performers everywhere.

Author's Note: How a Flea Circus Works

Fleas can jump about 150 times their own height. They'll put that incredible jumping ability to work as they pounce on anything resembling food. That might be your cat or your dog. And if don't treat your pets regularly to ward off fleas, the little buggers might wind up sucking on your blood, too. These are the sorts of thoughts that ran through my head as I sat in a good friend's home, watching fleas flickering wildly through the family dog's fur. I had plans that night to crash on their couch; after witnessing the dog's unhappy infestation I decided to make other plans very, very quickly.

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