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Heymatt:

I've heard during the golden era of the flea circus, there were some who complained about the mistreatment of fleas. Is it possible for a human to have so much misplaced empathy that they actually go to bat on behalf of these enslaved parasites? And were fleas really trained to perform? I always figured they were just glued to little props that got moved around magnetically or something. If in fact fleas are trainable, why can't we train them to stay off us and our pets and go join a circus or something?

-- Bailey says woof

I'm sure none of you know that the Alices are circus folk. Yep. Side-show charlatans from way back. The elves wanted to carry on the tradition but were pretty discouraged by the idea of shoveling elephant poop and all the packing and unpacking. So they tried a flea circus, but the dog wouldn't cooperate. Besides, they really only had enough cash to organize a bee circus, which takes less fancy optical equipment. Too many logistical problems with that one, though. Then Grandma nixed their fly circus idea. So now they're applying for scholarships to clown school.

We entertainment-starved idiots have been watching trained fleas for more than 300 years. One story goes that early English clockmakers used to fiddle around with fleas in order to demonstrate their abilities at fine motor control. If you can hook a flea to a teeny carriage that you've carved yourself and make him pull it, you certainly can make a reliable clock. But it was the Victorians who raised flea circuses to a fine art. Since society then dictated that everyone should live his polite life not thinking about sex, maybe flea circuses were a desperation alternative.

The list of flea talents is nearly endless: musician fleas, dancing fleas, trapeze-artist fleas, tightrope walkers, soccer players, divers -- about any gooney activity you can think of. But of course, in the finest circus tradition, the whole idea of "trained" fleas was a hoax. Not only were the fleas not "trained," half the time they weren't even alive.

Fleas are basic creatures. They have hard shells, so you can glue things to them and glue them to things. They move around in response to heat and light, are very strong, and can jump like Superman. Add a few incredibly small props (violins, chairs, hats, coats, capes, flags), get them to wiggle around in an effort to get free (or manipulate the dead ones with magnets), and you've got a flea circus. One flea entrepreneur put two teams onto a tiny soccer pitch, dropped in a miniature soccer ball soaked in a repellant chemical, the fleas pushed the ball away with their legs, mimicking a game. No record of his having glued thousands of fleas to stadium seats around the field as the obligatory football hooligans.

The flea part doesn't impress me much. The amazing stuff is finding people who can make a bride's dress or a frock coat or shoes for the critters. (The largest flea in the world is only one-third of an inch long.) Granted, pictures of fleas in costume show that they are mostly costume, not much flea, but still.... Mexico has a long tradition of pulgas vestidas, dressed-up fleas that used to be sold in markets as tourist curios. The origin of the fad is murky.

I couldn't confirm that anyone ever protested a flea circus as cruel and unbugly punishment. But animal-rights Victorians did protest the treatment of larger circus animals. Maybe one day a group got confused and picketed a flea circus by mistake. It could happen.

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