This gaping maw belongs to Indian, one of Derrick Jr.’s many trained bears. Don’t worry, he wasn’t mad—it’s all just part of the show.
There is a 30-acre spread of patchy land less than a mile from I-75 in Sarasota, Florida, that’s home to a menagerie of lions, tigers, a liger, a couple of cougars, chimpanzees, Kodiak bears, lemurs, and all sorts of other exotic creatures from around the world. These are the adopted children of the Rosaires, a circus family whose animal-training expertise makes Dar the Beastmaster seem about as talented as Steve Irwin’s corpse.
All of the Rosaires have a knack for communicating with a variety of fauna, but over the years each family member has formed a close bond with a specific genus or species. There’s Pam, who trains chimps; “bear men” Derrick Jr. and his two sons, Derrick III and Frederick; equestrienne extraordinaire Ellian; Pam’s twin sister, Linda, who is retired but can still make a pack of dogs and other critters perform an extensive repertoire of tricks; Clayton, who at the age of 17 became the youngest lion and tiger trainer in the world; and Clayton’s mother, Kay, who taught him the ropes of handling giant felines that can rake the skin off your chest with a playful swat.
I had the honor of being invited to the Rosaires’ compound to discuss the downfall of the circus industry—a form of entertainment that has its roots in ancient Rome, and one so deeply ingrained in American culture that it has been a near-ubiquitous experience for every man, woman, and child in the United States for generations.
Understandably, the Rosaires are wary of the media and its coverage of their way of life, specifically the treatment of their animals. After reassuring them that I wasn’t a scheming PETA sympathizer posing as a journalist, they spoke with me at length about how the American circus has been going the way of the dodo for decades. I learned that its terminal decline has implications that stretch far beyond the obvious.
The Rosaires told me that their entertainment lineage stretches back to the court jesters of Great Britain and includes nine generations of animal trainers and other performers. At some point (no one is certain how long ago), the family found a niche in training a wide variety of animal acts. The late patriarch of the modern-day Rosaire crew, Derrick Rosaire Sr., carried the family’s legacy through the latter half of 20th century. He is perhaps best known for his renowned equestrian act, Rosaire and Tony the Wonder Horse, which scored him an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and led to a gig training animals for the 60s children’s TV show Daktari.
Born and based in South Wingfield, England, Derrick spent the majority of his young adulthood touring with circuses throughout Europe. He was also busy making babies with his wife, Betty, who was a member of another Europe-based circus family that specialized in training animals, the Kayes. Derrick and Betty began schooling their kids in the family business from the moment the tykes were capable of sweeping up a pile of horseshit. Of course, there were hairy moments.
“When we were kids, Mom and Dad got a big contract to work in Algeria, so we got on a ship and went,” Linda recalled. “When we arrived, there were four French Legionnaires to greet us and take us to the show grounds. My dad was like, ‘What’s up, mate? What’s this all about?’ And they said, ‘Well, there’s a war going on.’ My parents had no clue because they didn’t understand the news; they didn’t speak the language. The first night my dad got a room on the top floor of the biggest hotel in Algiers, and when we looked out the window there were people shooting each other in the street.”
In August 1961, the family relocated from England to Waterford, Pennsylvania, in hopes of reaping the benefits of America’s burgeoning circus industry. A few months later, they realized a major problem: It was too goddamn cold for the animals.
“We had no idea about American geography, and my father had a friend who lived in Waterford, so he ended up buying property there,” Kay told me. “It was August, so it was beautiful. And then winter came. We’d be freezing in four feet of snow and talking to friends down in Florida who were playing tennis and enjoying the beach. We were like, ‘Wait a minute, how can that be?’ Eventually, we moved to Sarasota.”
Ricky is the youngest of Pam’s five chimpanzees. When she says that he is her “son,” she’s not kidding one bit. Pam’s human children half-jokingly claim that she paid more attention to the chimps than to them. If that doesn’t convince you, she once breast-fed an adopted chimp because its mother passed away shortly after giving birth. And no, she did not dress Ricky up for these photos. He enjoys wearing people clothes all the time.
Today, Sarasota is a sleepy seaside community with a population of a little more than 50,000. Its residents are wealthy lushes, hardworking families, and retirees attempting to sweat out their final days on the pristine white-sand beaches of Siesta Key. In the past two decades, it has also gained notoriety as the place where Pee-wee Herman jerked off in a porno theater and where, on 9/11, George W. Bush was informed that a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center as he stared blankly at a classroom of second graders reciting spelling exercises. It is also my hometown.
But back when American cities were still associated with particular industries, Sarasota was known as the Circus City.
“Driving around, you’d see rigging and animals being trained and people doing the flying trapeze and high wire in their yards,” Pam told me. “It put the circus on the map. Tourists would just drive around and watch people perform in their backyards. It was amazing.”
Sarasota’s association with the circus began in the early years of the 20th century, when a few members of the Ringling family (of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fame) chose the city as their winter residence. John Ringling and his wife, Mable, commissioned the $1.5 million (adjusted for inflation, that’s about $16 million) Venetian-inspired Cà d’Zan Mansion in 1924. Soon, Ringling performers and staff began moving to the area, and in 1951 Cecile B. DeMille forever cemented Sarasota’s bond with the circus by selecting it as the location for his Academy Award-winning film The Greatest Show on Earth. Developers soon realized the potential of Sarasota’s real estate market, and property values skyrocketed. The circus folk were eventually priced out of the very city they had helped build.
The extended Rosaire family: [back row, left to right] Derrick III; Frederick; Clayton with Snoopy the dog; [middle row, left to right] Derrick Jr.; Derrick’s wife, Kay (who coincidentally shares the name of his big-cat-training sister); Derrick Sr.’s widow, Lisa Lisette; Clayton’s wife, Danielle; Clayton and Danielle’s baby daughter, Ella; Pam’s husband and acrobatic equestrian wonder, Roger Zoppe; Ellian; Ellian’s son Kaziu Rosaire Dymek; Ellian’s husband, and former world-class acrobat, Kazimierz Dymek; [bottom row, left to right] Linda; Kay; Pam; and Ellian’s son Jerek Rosaire Dymek.
Ringling remains the premier name in the business (and probably the only one that’s still turning a profit), but the circus used to be an extremely varied and sustainable way of life for many talented Americans. Clayton, Pam, and Derrick Jr. and his two sons are the only Rosaires who are currently working and touring their animals regularly, but the gigs come much less frequently than they once did. There are all sorts of reasons for the industry’s decline in popularity, but the Rosaires claim that a major historical event—one that’s otherwise viewed as one of the most hopeful developments of the 20th century—pretty much destroyed their former way of life.
“The biggest downturn was when the Berlin Wall fell,” Kay explained. “All the circus performers in the Eastern bloc countries were suddenly allowed to get out. They literally flooded the market with cheap Bulgarian and Russian and Polish acts. And a lot of them went to these sketchy circus schools, so they’re not real acrobats or animal trainers—it’s not in them. Around the same time, the animal rights activists got really busy, so unfortunately all of the circus producers in this country used that as an excuse to not hire animal acts. They could hire five of these cheaper acts and they could put all of the money they would’ve spent on the tiger act into their pockets.”
Like her sister Linda, Kay has largely retired from the family business. Unlike Linda, who left the circus to get away from the day-to-day rigors of caring for animals on the road, Kay has made them an even bigger part of her life since her departure. Six years ago, after three decades of rescuing abandoned animals, Kay founded the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary. It is where many of the Rosaires’ critters happily reside. As a nonprofit entity, it receives a large portion of its funding from donations and small grants. Of course, it’s very difficult to sustain such an operation, but the Rosaires have always found inventive ways to keep things afloat.
On most weekends throughout the year, about $10 will get you a tour of the grounds and a demonstration in a makeshift circus arena. Once a year, though, the Rosaires drag out their big top and sequined costumes and invite their circus buddies to participate in a fund-raiser for the habitat that’s about as close to a real circus as you can get inside the confines of what is technically someone’s backyard.
Fluffy the emu arrived at the Rosaires’ sanctuary after a local zoo closed down and left its animals homeless. About five years ago, Derrick III was tending to the bears when a fight suddenly broke out. Bears don’t really show emotion, so even the most experienced trainers can’t always tell when they’re angry. He got caught in the middle of the scrap, and this was the result. Derrick writes it off as being at the wrong place at the wrong time and holds no grudge against the animals, but goddamn that had to hurt.
Kay may be the founder of the sanctuary, but the entire family pitches in to ensure that the animals get the care and attention they need. Kay’s sister Pam, who cares for five chimps and claims to be the only woman in the world confident enough to handle the infamously grouchy middle-aged beasts, has hopes of opening a similar sanctuary sometime in the near future. She stresses that people should never, under any circumstances, keep chimps as pets. Too bad Sandra Herold, the owner of the 200-pound chimp who ripped off her friend Charla Nash’s lips, jaw, nose, and hands and gouged the eyes out of her head last February in Stamford, Connecticut, didn’t get the memo. Still, Pam told me she likes her chimps more than most human beings.
“I work with chimps because they’re my favorite people,” Pam said. “They love me. They treat me like a baby, but it took my husband ten years to be able to put his hand on me and talk to me in front of the chimps.”
Speaking with any of the Rosaires it is immediately clear that they work with animals because they love them like blood relatives. It is their destiny. They are not a wealthy family, and their operation is constantly at risk of going bankrupt. Linda is the only member of the family who owns a proper house; the rest live in trailers scattered about the property, but they remain perfectly happy. Theirs is a job that offers no real vacations or time off—the animals must be cared for 365 days a year, and most of the profits they glean from touring, on-site demonstrations, and events literally go right back into the animals’ mouths.
“It’s all about paying the feed bills,” Clayton said. “People forget that exotic animals eat exotic food.”
The majority of their adopted brood was born in captivity—zoo orphans or exotic pets abandoned by rich people who finally realized their one-year-old bobcats weren’t going to shit in a box. Couple that with Florida’s role as the US’s primary entry point for many exotic animals, and it isn’t hard to imagine how many end up abandoned or neglected.
“Most of the people who had illegal pets before increased regulation were drug dealers in Florida,” Kay told me when I asked about the state’s exotic-animal dilemma. “They were notorious for having big cats. They used them to get rid of bodies.”
More recently, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has gone to great lengths to police what sorts of animals are let past its borders. It is also the organization responsible for making sure people like the Rosaires adequately house their beasties and adhere to a stringent set of codes (all of which the family surpasses). But this does little to satisfy PETA, the Animal Liberation Front, and other smaller animal rights organizations. Many of the members of these groups believe that animals, especially nonnative species, should never be trained or kept in captivity, no matter the circumstances surrounding their arrival.
“Not one of those places runs a huge nonprofit sanctuary that gives homes to the animals after they close down these facilities,” Clayton retorted when asked about animal rights groups that accuse the Rosaires and other circuses performers of animal neglect and mistreatment.
I contacted PETA to get their official stance on circus animals. Their answers were predictably definitive and damning.
“PETA is opposed to the use of exotic animals in circuses, or any performing-animal acts, and to the idea of ‘training’ wild animals in general,” Lisa Wathne, captive-exotic-animal specialist for PETA, said. “Animals used and trained for such acts are denied everything that is natural to them. They spend their lives in extreme confinement, are deprived of normal activities such as roaming, hunting, choosing their own partners, and raising their young, and are trained through abuse, deprivation, and fear.”
Unless you’re brain-damaged or a hopeless dunce you should be capable of deducing that captive-born animals and their offspring cannot be responsibly released into the wild. So no matter what your stance is on the issue, please realize that there are only two paths for the abandoned: winding up at a sanctuary or zoo, which admittedly may or may not be able to care for them adequately, or being put to sleep. If the latter outcome sounds preferable, I double-dog-dare you to head down to the Big Cat Habitat or a similarly up-to-snuff sanctuary, talk to the caretakers, and leave a few hours later without feeling like a self-righteous asshole.
As you can see, Derrick Jr. really loves his European brown bear, Peter, which has spurred many jokes about “Derrick’s big Peter” from the family. Derrick would like you to know that he only muzzles his bears when they’re around unfamiliar people, such as photographers taking pictures of them for a magazine.
I asked Lisa what should happen with these animals in an ideal world, and whether or not PETA believes they should be euthanized if a proper home is unavailable (as claimed by the Rosaires). She skirted the second part of my question but told me that they support and facilitate finding adequate refuge for exotic creatures without homes.
“In such cases, PETA advocates for the animals to be placed only at qualified and reputable sanctuaries or at zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums,” Lisa said.
Ellian has trained five-year-old Navarro so well that he’ll perform for just about anyone with intermediate horse-riding skills. She claims that his neigh sometimes sounds like he’s saying “Mom.”
Besides ad hoc protests and other slanderous activities, the Rosaires have been subjected to personal attacks. Most of the time they brush them off and move on to the next town, but some of their savvier opponents have been calling the venues that book their shows to tell promoters the Rosaires mistreat their animals.
“We’re required by law to submit our itineraries to the USDA when we travel on the road for work,” Kay said. “We have to fax them a route so they can come and check on us and the animals at any time. There are a few animal rights people who somehow get our itinerary and contact the people we’re working for to tell them not to hire us—that they shouldn’t have trained animals at their circus because it’s immoral. Who knows how many venues they’ve contacted that didn’t hire us because of it.”
If there’s any form of mistreatment at the Big Cat Habitat, I didn’t see it. Recent economic woes have caused more people to get rid of their exotic and large animals than ever, and the Rosaires are among a handful of giant-hearted folks eager to take proper care of them.
Whether or not these animals should be trained and sent out on the road is an argument I won’t get into here. But I can say that many of the displaced critters living at the Big Cat Habitat are not trained to participate in the Rosaires’ acts. Most are orphans of the man-made variety (be it through abandonment or environmental havoc), and very few people have the wherewithal to dedicate their lives to fostering them. Based on what I witnessed during the short time I spent with the Rosaires, I wholeheartedly believe these lucky animals have landed in an ideal situation given the circumstances.
Not many things make Ricky and Geraldine happier than zooming around on Pam’s scooter. It also gets Pam pretty darn jazzed. Gremlin the lemur likes getting in on the scooter action too.
The Rosaire family runs the tightest of ships and has a deep devotion to both its animals and its trade. You might say the Rosaires oversee their operation like a three-ring circus, if you knew what the phrase actually meant. According to the family, and contrary to the idiom’s accepted usage, the phrase a three-ring circus should be used to imply that meticulous, thorough, and uncompromising attention has been paid to the work.
“One thing that really, really upsets circus people all over the world is when people say things like, ‘Oh, it was a terrible, wild scene over there. The courtroom erupted into a three-ring circus.’ Well, if court were as organized as the circus we wouldn’t have the problems that we have.”
I have no real way of confirming whether what the Rosaires say about the efficiency of the circus is true, but rumor has it that the US military sent troops to observe the Ringling Bros. circus during World War I as an example of how to get shit done. And I’m inclined to believe it. Though their livelihood is necessarily methodical, it’s important to note that they still consider their day-to-day work a form of charity. As long as their animals are sleeping soundly and they get to entertain people every so often. They are, after all, circus folk.
“We want people to leave thinking, ‘Wow, that was amazing. Those people are amazing. Those animals are beautiful. That was fun,’” Kay told me. “And you see that: You see kids crying because they don’t want to go home. They want to stay at the circus. And that’s how we want people to feel when they leave a show.”
We urge you to watch the award-winning documentary Circus Rosaire for more information about the family’s history and their big-top escapades. You can find it at circusrosairemovie.com. The Rosaires would also like us to mention that donations big and small can be made to the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary at bigcathabitat.org.
PHOTOS BY JASON HENRY